Tales from the SETI Café Copyright © 2012 by Steve Geller All rights reserved. This version available for on-line reading only.
Table of Contents:
This is a speculative essay about what might happen if the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) should succeed, meaning that messages from intelligent beings living beyond Earth are actually received.
This essay is cast in the form of a realistic science fiction story, that is, a mixture of science fact and entertaining speculation.
I imagine myself writing a journal covering a time when, as the result of a major advance in technology, SETI makes a jump from never detecting anything reliable or consistent, to becoming aware that messages from ET civilizations are abundant. I describe how this news affects scientists, governments, news people, religious people, students and the public in general.
Before I begin this story, there are six things I should make clear:
(1) The term “ET” is simply an abbreviation for “extraterrestrial,” generally meaning anything not on planet Earth. More specifically for this story, ET means an intelligent being belonging to a non-human civilization possibly residing on a planet in orbit about some star, many light-years distant from Earth. As used in this story, ET is not the title of a movie; it is not the nickname of any big-eyed beings alleged to visit Earth aboard a UFO.
(2) The astronomical locations and physical properties of the named stars described in this story, for example Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, 61 Cygni, HD 85512 and Gliese 581, are correct, according to published information available at the time of writing (June 2012). However, the radio emissions, especially ET signals, which any of these stars are said to generate, come mostly from my imagination.
(3) While Berkeley, California is a more or less real place, the Berkeley restaurant called the “SETI Café” is not real, not right now anyway. But restaurants proliferate in Berkeley. Could be, by the time anyone reads this story, someone will have opened a real SETI Café.
(4) The characters I describe here are all fictional, in the sense that while my descriptions may be inspired by encounters with real people, the characters themselves are not real people — even the ones you are sure you recognize.
(5) The technology of Statistical Signal Enhancement (SSE) has yet to be invented. It may not even make engineering sense.
(6) While there has been speculation about gas bag beings floating in the atmosphere of giant planets such as Jupiter, nobody has yet detected any chirps from them.
One more thing – my own background: I’m not a scientist. I’ve had a long-term interest in space travel and astronomy, but I’m just a retired software engineer, now a story teller.
We search for ET messages because we think the ETs have to be there. They are real. We can’t be alone. There must be intelligent life somewhere else in the universe.
Because the universe is very large, with billions upon billions of stars, and because recent observations have shown that plenty of stars have planets, there’s no need to expect that life is vanishingly rare. Perhaps extra-terrestrial life won’t be an exact duplicate of what we see on Earth, but it seems most likely that life, as a self-regenerating, self-adapting system, is not restricted to just one place in the universe.
Life is one of the common processes of the universe, like chemical reactions and nuclear synthesis, like orbits and atmospheres. These are things that happen all over our universe, not in just one place. They are common systems.
Someone once nicely summarized this idea: the universe is a collection of repeated instances of a few common systems.
It’s tempting to accept that life is one of those common systems. Right now, it looks like our living planet is unique; we won’t know any different until we encounter ET life — an example of life other than what we have on Earth. How different will it be?
But the question driving SETI isn’t just life. It’s whether thinking beings like us humans are out there, with anything like our technical and language capabilities. Life is almost certainly out there, but we humans may still be unique, a rare, amazing fluke of nature. Is there anyone out there we can talk to, relate to, learn from? This is why we listen.
Life probably once existed on Mars. There is evidence from rock formations photographed by the Mars rovers that in past ages, our neighbor planet had lakes, rivers and maybe even oceans. But there is no life there today — well, it's still possible that hardy native Martian microbes remain from the water epoch. Unfortunately, it’s all too likely that the Mars landers arriving from Earth have deposited some of Earth’s microbes, so it might be hard now to tell what’s native to Mars from what’s not. We're fairly sure that there are no intelligent beings on Mars, who can send us radio signals. They sure haven’t done so, anyway. None of them have met our landers. Not even Martian insects have come buzzing or crawling around our landers, as certainly would have happened on Earth.
Life might exist right now on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus; both bodies show signs of liquid water beneath a crust of ice, the water being kept warm by the big planet’s gravity squeezing the body of the moon. There might even be some form of life living in the swirling clouds of Hydrogen, Helium, Methane and Ammonia which constitute much of the atmosphere of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but so far, such life has not been detected.
The effort to detect Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence has been going on for a long time. Most people have heard of the Fermi Paradox: if the ETs are out there, why haven't some of them arrived here, or at least sent us signals? Where are they?
SETI searches for ET radio messages, mostly using radio telescopes. Recently, there has also been Optical SETI, watching for flashes of laser light from an ET.
One SETI project has used a “piggyback” antenna on the big radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. While the telescope goes about its regular radio astronomy scientific business, the piggyback antenna points wherever the main antenna is looking and captures a separate signal that is recorded and later analyzed for narrow-band signals from space.
These days, anyone can participate in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. If you have a home computer and an Internet connection, you can go to “SETI@home,” a UC Berkeley-based website which facilitates using the Internet to run SETI signal analysis in your home.
SETI@home has been used to extensively study digitized signals received by the Arecibo radio telescope.
Narrow-band signals are not known to occur naturally, so detecting one of them could lead to evidence of extraterrestrial technology. The SETI researchers hope that an ET civilization might be deliberately beaming messages at Earth, or more likely, that such a civilization might have such energetic electromagnetic activity that they leak some of their local radio out into space.
An AM or FM radio signal may be converted to sound by “de-modulating,” pulling out a low-frequency audio signal which has been imposed on the much higher “carrier” frequency component of the signal received from space. For a TV signal, it’s more complicated: the lines of a picture must be picked out, brightness/color information extracted and a change of frame recognized. None of this can be done easily by guesswork. The de-modulator designer has to know what conventions were used to modulate the carrier. When an ET civilization is doing the modulating, it may use very different conventions from those we use on Earth.
There are probably limits on catching an ET message. Radio signals transmitted long-range suffer from simple attenuation – the inverse-square law. The signals also suffer from distortion and interference.
Interference means competition from other signals, especially those in the same wavelength range. If any signal-sending ET desires to be heard, he should pick a frequency range that’s relatively quiet, but still convenient to recognize and detect.
Distortion is more subtle. The relative motion between us and the source can shift the wavelength – the Doppler Effect. Interstellar magnetic fields can bend waves. Electric fields can rotate the polarization. Signals can experience “smearing over time,” meaning that different frequency components of the signal travel at different rates and arrive at different times. This last problem arises with long-haul fiber optic cables.
All of these effects can be recognized, and to some extent be compensated for, but overall, they limit how much extraterrestrial message traffic SETI will be able to pick up.
So far, nothing solid has turned up from the SETI studies. There have been a few interesting signals, but nothing that consistently repeats, or has been successfully analyzed to show intelligent content.
Detecting an ET signal is just the beginning. Analyzing it for intelligent content is the big job. We don’t know what frequencies ET is using, or whether ET uses any of the same transmission methods (e.g. AM, FM, PCM, FSK, Spread-Spectrum) that we use here on Earth. The ET technologists may well have come up with something very different, a way to send electromagnetic signals that we on Earth never thought of. But the SETI people think that some kind of pattern will be evident in the signal, regardless of the transmission method, if intelligent beings are generating it.
SETI soldiers on, in spite of the fact that (with perhaps one exception) nothing like an interstellar communication signal has ever been received. The concept of a universe full of repeats of common systems makes it worthwhile for SETI to keep on searching.
There may have been one possible detection of ET. This was the “Wow!” signal, a strong, narrowband radio signal detected by Dr. Jerry R. Ehman on August 15, 1977 using the “Big Ear” radio telescope at Ohio State University. The signal was a sharp peak, a quick rise and fall, at only one of the 50 frequencies being monitored as the telescope slowly swept across the sky. For each step of the sweep, the computer printout showed a single digit to indicate the intensity of the signal. The random background showed as ‘1’ or ‘2’. The highest intensities were represented by letters, going upward from ‘A’.
On that August day, one of the sweeps showed the sequence of numbers and letters “6EQUJ5” -- the ‘U’ at the peak indicated a signal intensity 30 times background. There was no such surge at any of the other monitored frequencies. Ehman was impressed. Using a red pen, he wrote the comment “Wow!” on the printout right next to the surge sequence. This comment became famous as the name of the signal.
Most radio astronomers agree that “Wow!” could not be something natural like a quasar. Natural radio sources spread energy across many frequencies, rather than concentrating only at a single frequency. “Wow!” was definitely narrow-band.
The Big Ear telescope was fixed in the ground; it could only adjust its pointing within a very narrow range. The Big Ear used the rotation of the Earth to scan the sky. At the speed of the Earth's rotation, and given the width of the Big Ear's observation “window,” the Big Ear could observe any given point for just 72 seconds. A continuous extraterrestrial signal, therefore, would be expected to register for exactly 72 seconds, and the recorded intensity of that signal would show a gradual peaking for the first 36 seconds—until the signal reached the center of Big Ear's observation window— and then do a gradual decrease. This is exactly what was seen: both the length of the “Wow!” signal, 72 seconds, and the shape of its intensity graph suggest something artificial, of possible extraterrestrial origin.
It’s intriguing that the “Wow!” signal was received at very close to 1420 MHz, the frequency at which abundant cool interstellar Hydrogen radiates. Also known as the 21-cm line (which is the equivalent wavelength of the frequency), this very common background radio frequency had been proposed as the most likely one for ET to use to call Earth, because, since interstellar Hydrogen radiates fairly steadily, anything above background intensity at that frequency would be seen as unusual, likely to have been generated by an intelligent technical civilization.
In the early decades of SETI, 1420 MHz was the only frequency at which most observers chose to listen. Today, with much better electronic equipment, SETI listens at millions of different frequencies.
One thing that could have made that “Wow!” signal signature is a satellite of some sort at just the right distance, going just the right speed, in order to mimic a celestial object traversing the sky. So that's a possibility, but it seems pretty unlikely. First, it would have been seen by a lot of people. Ohio State would have seen it repeatedly, because satellites broadcast repeatedly. Secondly, if it was a secret satellite it would have been pretty stupid to transmit at a frequency that radio astronomers across the world listen to all the time. Of course, the signal could have been a mistake, the result of a malfunction.
The “Wow!” signal was never seen again. Nobody else had the fortune to detect the “Wow!” signal. Various sites have tried, including the Very Large Array in New Mexico.
If the signal did come from ET, then it was not beamed deliberately at Earth; rather, Earth just happened to get in the way as it swung by, like the beam from a lighthouse.
We know where in the sky the “Wow!” came from – the region of Sagittarius, dense with stars from our galaxy — but we have no idea how far away the source was. If the source was on a planet many light-years distant, then the indicated intensity might have been too powerful to expect any ET to generate, especially if the beam is thought to be on all the time as it swept. Of course, ET might have simply taken a quick shot in the dark, and sent a brief strong transmission in the direction of a likely star system.
I recall a remark made by someone, that SETI seems to assume that there are many ETs out there eagerly sending us their messages, while we on Earth don’t send out much of anything deliberately. The vast bulk of radio emissions an ET might hear from Earth is leakage from radio broadcasts, radars and satellite communications. If Earth’s behavior is typical of ETs, then SETI should expect that the most likely thing to pick up would be an ET’s local leakage.
The SETI Café is a restaurant, with about 16 tables, located on the ground floor of a building in downtown Berkeley. It claims to serve food that’s out of this world. Items on the menu are said to be inspired by stars with planets, where ET beings just possibly might live.
The SETI Café is open weekdays only, for eight hours, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The big crowd comes at lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
As you pass the SETI Café in the street around noon, you hear “ET Music” coming from the restaurant sound system. It consists of drumming, humming, plunks, buzzes and chirps.
These sounds are extraterrestrial. They come from stars. Radio telescopes all over the world provide signal data from when their antenna is pointed toward some star system. This data is received at a lab on the UC Berkeley campus. Processing of a radio or optical signal produces an audio signal. This is what is heard as ET Music. Many different signal processing techniques are in use, and signal processing is done differently for each star.
ET Music is made available as sound files on a website, which café patrons can access with their laptop computer. They listen to the ET Music on their earphones. To attract customers, especially around lunch time, the restaurant plays selected ET Music on the speaker system. This is what you hear as you pass in the street.
Here are a few examples:
It may or may not be music, but it sure is extraterrestrial. ET Music has come from stars with astronomical names like Tau Ceti, Epsilon Eridani and 61 Cygni, which are 10-20 light-years distant from Earth. The stars are known or suspected to have planets, not necessarily Earth-like.
Some people who listen to the ET music claim to get visions of faraway star systems and life on planets orbiting around them. In some cases, listeners think they are in contact with an actual ET being, or beings. They claim to absorb alien culture, including their food culture. This is called “channeling ET.” Many items on the restaurant menu were inspired by channeling ET from a particular star.
Of course, many people scoff at channeling ET as foolish new-age fraud. The restaurant management doesn’t make any claims. The ET Music is offered only as entertainment for the customers.
I entered the SETI Café recently, about 2 p.m. I looked around. Most of the walls were covered with pictures of star fields and artistic speculations of what might be the scene at a hypothetical planet.
I saw one wall picture labeled "Epsilon Eridani." It showed a bright Sun-like star in the far distance, and in the near distance, a planet with a banded atmosphere of colored clouds. Also circling the star was a string of small rocky bodies – a belt of asteroids. This was an artist's conception of the star system, not a photograph.
I sat down at a table and picked up the menu.
Epsilon Eridani Broccoli & Nut Salad.
Chopped broccoli, mixed with nuts, carrots and beans in a pleasant soy-based sauce.
Inspired by the Epsilon Eridani star system, a Sun-like star 10.4 light-years distant in the constellation Eridanus. Numerous science fiction stories feature an ET civilization at Epsilon Eridani.
Tofu chunks with various dips for flavoring.
Inspired by the Tau Ceti system, a yellow-orange star 12 light-years distant in the constellation Cetus. Tau Ceti is another popular locale in science fiction for an ET civilization.
Vegan Veggie Burger.
Hamburger with bun, faux meat pattie, pickles, onions.
Inspired by Vega, about 25 light-years distant, the brightest star in the northern constellation Lyra. Telescopes show that Vega is surrounded by a disk of dust and debris. Irregularities in Vega's disk suggest the presence of at least one planet, likely to be about the size of Jupiter. Vega has an unusually low abundance of the elements with a higher atomic number than that of Helium, which doesn’t bode well for the formation of Earth-like planets. In the movie “Contact,” the ET message comes from Vega.
Altair Arugula Salad.
A chopped salad spun in a blender, consisting of organic dandelion, arugula greens, cucumbers, spicy garlic and miso dressing.
Inspired by Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the eagle. This star, 16.7 light-years distant, is one of the few large enough and close enough to have been directly imaged. Altair appears oblate, flattened at its poles. This shape distortion is caused by a very rapid spin. One rotation of Altair takes only 9 hours; a rotation of our sun takes 27 days. In the 1956 science fiction movie “Forbidden Planet,” an expedition goes to a planet of Altair.
Betelgeuse Beet Treat.
Mixture of cooked beets - red beets, yellow beets, purple beets – in sauce.
Inspired by Betelgeuse, 640 light-years distant -- the big red star which marks Orion’s right shoulder. Betelgeuse is one of the largest stars. If Betelgeuse replaced the Sun in our solar system, the outer layers of Betelgeuse would go out beyond the orbit of Mars.
Cooked blue corn and black rice,
Inspired by the well-known blue-white star Sirius, 9 light-years distant in the constellation Canis Major. Sirius has a companion star which is a white dwarf.
A flatbread, said to be native to Vulcan, Mr. Spock's home planet.
Star Trek places Vulcan in orbit about Epsilon Eridani, but there is disagreement about this among Trekkies, because it is such a young star and Vulcans are supposed to be an advanced ancient civilization.
Mixed corn and potato fried pancakes, with a soy-based sauce
Inspired by Fomalhaut, a bright star in the southern hemisphere. Distance is 25 light-years. Fomalhaut is visible in the northern hemisphere only during the autumn, and very low on the southern horizon, in a region with few bright stars. It is about twice as massive as the Sun. Fomalhaut is a young star, surrounded by a huge debris disk. An actual visible planet appears to be embedded in the disk.
Groombridge Binary Lunch.
Tabouli and Hummus
Inspired by Groombridge 34, a binary star system, 11.7 light-years distant. It consists of two red dwarf stars in a nearly circular orbit with a separation of about 147 astronomical units. Both stars in this pair exhibit variability due to random flares. Constellation: Andromeda
Red Star Beans, Beets and Onions.
Red beans, red beets, red onions, red peppers
Inspired by the star Gliese 581, 20.5 light-years distant, in the constellation Libra. This is a red dwarf star, which may have as many as 6 planets, one of which could be Earth-like, because it’s in the habitable zone.
I ordered the Vegan Veggie Burger. It was OK, but not out of this world.
I recognized someone I know and joined him at his table. My friend is a local character who goes by the name "Starman." He is in his 40’s, has a short black beard, shaggy dark hair, light blue eyes and a prominent set of very white teeth. He wears large glasses with round black rims. Starman is full of enthusiasms, but gives some people the impression of not being closely connected to reality. Starman is very smart, well-informed and capable of coming up with some surprising and inventive ideas. He works as the supply clerk and expediter for the UC Space Science Lab. He picks up a lot of interesting information to retail when he hangs out at the SETI Café.
With his earphones on, Starman was connected to his computer, staring into space, listening to ET Music. He came back to Earth when he saw me at his table.
“What are you listening to?” I asked.
“This is Epsilon Eridani,” he replied slowly. “I’m channeling an ET.”
“Do you hear a voice?” I inquired.
“No, I just hear the music. But the music makes images in my mind. I’m receiving the thoughts of someone who lives on a planet orbiting around the star. Maybe I’m getting thoughts from several people. I don’t know what they’re doing to make the music.”
“Listen.” He handed me his earphones.
I heard rising and falling hums, some pings, tones and plunks. Some of it could be music, but of a very abstract atonal kind. For me, the effect was a little bit like listening to an orchestra tuning up, or maybe a jazz band trying out some riffs. Mostly it was just random noise; I could hear better music by listening to the honking horns, roaring engines and screeching tires from Berkeley street traffic.
Starman explained: “This is coming from outer space. A radio telescope is pointed at a star and captures radio signals. The signals are sent to a lab here at UCB, and they process it, shifting the radio frequencies down to audio frequencies. My idea is that the thoughts of the ET people out there are somehow affecting whatever natural processes are making the Epsiloni radio signal."F
“Do you get ET thoughts when the music is coming from some other star?” I asked.
“Yes I do,” replied Starman. “But not in all cases. I’ve channeled ET from Tau Ceti, Gliese 667 and Kepler-22. These stars all send me ET thoughts.”
“Are the ET thoughts interesting?”
“Well, sort of, ” replied Starman. “What I get is kind of vague and fuzzy.” He smiled apologetically, spreading his hands. “These are extraterrestrials, you know; they don’t perceive the world the way we do.”
There were about six other people in the Café, like Starman, plugged into their laptops. Most of them were also eating one of the star-inspired food items.
Starman continued, “Some people here think that the human brain somehow extracts information from the ET Music and assembles it into, if not a picture, sort of an impression, a memory, a structure of ideas. I suppose the music might stimulate creativity or jolt the imagination.”
Starman introduced me to some other patrons of the Café. Several of them told me that ET Music produces mental images and vague ideas about far off places. When I suggested that most music has that kind of effect, I was told that the images and thoughts from ET music are unique. These customers at the SETI Café think they are really listening to murmurs from a far-off alien civilization, some of the time anyway.
One patron surprised me by likening the ET Music experience to listening to short-wave radio. “There is structure in it,” he said. “I think I hear fragments of Morse Code, music and voices fading in and out.”
“You hear words?” I inquired.
“I don’t myself hear any recognizable speech,” he replied. “But some of my friends think they hear some voices.”
“By the way,” he added, “there’s a musical group around here that plays stuff they say is derived from our ET Music. The group has a girl singer, who makes up songs to go with the music. They’re kind of a chant; some are in English, some are in other languages, like Hebrew and Sanskrit. I don’t think she claims to actually hear the words of these chants in the ET Music.”Starman broke in to add, “I’ve attended a concert given by that musical group. They very cleverly made the hums and plunks a bit more musical, and also added some rhythm. The foreign language chants are like solemn choral singing. I liked it.”
ET Music may or may not be real music, but it sure is extraterrestrial. ET Music currently comes from stars with familiar astronomical names like Sirius, Betelgeuse, Capella, and Fomalhaut. It also comes from more cryptically-named stars such as Beta Pictoris, Tau Ceti, Epsilon Eridani, 61 Cygni, HD 85512 and Gliese 581. What most of these stars have in common is that they are "close" to Earth; most are less than 100 light-years distant. Almost certainly, all these stars have planets, but these planets are not necessarily Earth-like, not necessarily inhabited by ETs.
Using Starman’s computer, I tried listening to the ET Music to see if I could channel an ET. I wasn’t doing very well, when Starman beckoned a young man over to our table. He was introduced to me as Felix Fanchot, an Astronomy graduate student. He was rather short and stocky, with curly dark blonde hair and a round pink face. He had a bright smile.
Felix and I began an interesting conversation; he was full of technical information.
“What kind of planet is at Epsilon Eridani? ” I asked him. “Is it anything like Earth? ”
Felix replied, “The star is similar to our Sun, but so far no Earth-like planets have been detected in orbit. There is one big planet, probably a gas giant like Jupiter, but even bigger. There's a lot of other junk there. Epsilon Eridani has two asteroid belts. The orbit of that big planet is eccentric, so its gravity keeps stuff stirred up. This makes it unlikely that any twin of Earth was able to form, but who knows?”
“Where is Epsilon Eridani in the sky?” I asked. “Can I find it without a telescope?”
“Sure, you can see it,” Felix replied. “It’s part of the constellation Eridanus, which represents a wandering river. Eridanus begins below and to the right of Orion. Epsilon Eridani is not far from Orion’s bright blue star Rigel. Epsilon is visible to the naked eye, but it is a relatively inconspicuous star.”
Felix showed me this data page from a file on his laptop computer:
Distance 10.4 light-years. Main Sequence star; Class K2; 0.82 solar mass. Surface temp 5000K; orange color.
Age probably less than a billion years. Has a higher level of magnetic activity than the present-day Sun; stellar wind 30 times as strong. Its rotation period is 11.2 days at its equator. Spectrum shows a comparatively low level of metals.
At least one Planet -- Mass 1.55 x Jupiter Radius ?? Orbital Period 2500 days (7 years) Eccentric orbit; Semimajor axis 3.39 AU; semiminor 0.72 AU
System includes two belts of rocky asteroids, one at 3 AU and a second at 20 AU, whose structure may be maintained by a possible second planet.
There is an extensive outer debris disk left over from the system's formation.
Here's a web pageI found.
After reading the information, I had a few questions. “I know that a light-year is a distance; it’s how far light travels in one year, right? So what’s an AU?”
Felix explained. “AU is the abbreviation for Astronomical Unit. It’s the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, about 93 million miles. We use the AU to talk about distances on the scale of the solar system. For example, the distance from the Sun to Mars is 1.5 AU; Sun to Jupiter is 5 AU. Far-out Pluto has an eccentric orbit, so its distance to the Sun varies from 30 to 50 AU.
“We use the light-year to describe the much larger distances between the stars. It takes 63,241 AU to make a light-year. The stars are very far away; the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is over 4 light-years distant.
I had another question. “What does it mean to have a ‘low level of metals’?”
Felix explained, “Astronomers use ‘metal’ to mean any element heavier than Hydrogen and Helium. I think the terminology comes from the practice of using the star’s spectrum to measure the abundance of the metal Iron, and using that as an estimate of the abundance of all heavy elements. In order for a rocky, iron-cored planet like Earth to form, the leftover debris from forming the star should have plenty of metals.
“By the way, all ‘metal’ elements got formed long ago by nuclear fusion inside large stars, and they were spread over a region of space when those stars exploded as a supernova.”
“OK, Felix,” I said. “Thanks a lot. I have just one more question. You say the surface temperature of this star is 5000 K. I know about F and C; in what degrees system is K?”
“K means Kelvin,” Felix quickly replied. “It’s the absolute temperature scale, established by the physicist Lord Kelvin. K has the same degree-steps as C, Celsius, but zero degrees K is absolute zero – the coldest possible; heat vibration has ceased. The freezing point of water, zero degrees Celsius, is 273 degrees K. Room temperature, about 20 degrees C, is 293 K.
“Our Sun has a surface temperature of about 5700K. The surface temperature of Epsilon Eridani is about 5000 K, which is 4727 C, which is … work it out.” Felix wrote the Celsius to Fahrenheit formula on a napkin: F = (9/5)C + 32.
I pulled out my calculator and soon announced “8541 degrees F. Very hot indeed. OK, now I think I understand the technical basics.”
“Something else to keep in mind,” Felix added, “is the way large planets in a system vacuum up the miscellaneous comets, asteroids and rocks, which would otherwise bombard a small rocky planet. There were several mass extinctions of life on Earth caused by such bombardments. The most famous is the impact 65 million years ago which might have wiped out the dinosaurs. The gravity of Jupiter, and Saturn too, is thought to have captured enough large objects so that only a few of these extinctions happened to Earth.
“The same thing might take place in the planetary system of another star, removing bombarding rocks, allowing smaller rocky planets to get life going without an impact promptly wiping life out. Solar systems which have no gas giant planets probably have little chance of developing a life-bearing planet like Earth.”
I turned from Felix back to Starman. “What do you hear in the ET Music?” I asked.
“From Epsilon Eridani? Nothing specific, really; I sure don't hear anything like 'tell your leader we are here and ready to do business.'" He gave me a toothy grin.
I asked Felix. “Starman says the music makes images in his head. Does this happen to you?”
Felix shrugged. “I suppose any music makes mental images. I get vague impressions, which could possibly be the thoughts of extraterrestrial beings, but if so, I don’t understand much from them. You are aware that this ET music is artificial, aren’t you?”
That stopped me for a moment. I asked, “You mean it’s not really coming from the stars?”
Felix shook his head impatiently. “No, I mean that the radio signal from the star is being artificially processed to produce the music you’re hearing.”
I probed Felix for more information. “I understand that the signal from the star is received by a radio telescope, as high-frequency. The high frequency is reduced to bring it into audio range so we can hear something. Is this what you mean by artificial?”
“Yes, but there’s more involved than a shift in frequency,” replied Felix. “The signal is not a pure tone; there are lower frequencies riding on top of the high-frequency signal. This is called modulation. The signal processing converts all this to musical tones. The lab which does this processing tries various settings until they get something interesting or pleasant to listen to, for that star. Then they send the audio result to the website.”
I asked, “Is it always the same processing?”
“No, it’s different for each star, and the processing used for each star is changed from time-to-time.”
I pursued. “Do these signals mean we are in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence?”
Felix chuckled. “Not necessarily. There are plenty of interesting signals generated naturally by any star and the stuff around it. If we processed pressure waves from Earth’s weather, we could probably generate some kind of music. The surface of some stars pulsates; that could generate an audio signal.
“Frankly, most radio astronomers scoff at ET Music as irrelevant to science, but enough radio telescope observatories supply sample signals, either directly or as a byproduct of other research, so that the SETI Café can provide a steadily changing parade of ET Music.
“But, you know,” Felix brightened, “there could be ET radio and TV modulating the star signals. The trouble is that, because of the many light-years of distance, it would probably be too faint and full of interference to make sense of. I think it’s simply fun to listen to the artificially generated music, without trying to make mysterious messages out of it.”
Last week, I interviewed the manager of the SETI Café, a pleasant Earthling in his 30’s, who gave his name as Cosmo Gomez. He was wearing a T-shirt which showed a spiral galaxy, presumably the Milky Way. An arrow pointed to a location on one of the outer bands of stars. The legend: “You are here, Berkeley, California.”
Cosmo is dark haired, olive skinned and sharp-featured. He somewhat resembles the character Mr. Spock from Star Trek, but is much more emotionally alive and does not have the funny Vulcan ears. I suggested that “Cosmo” might be a stage name, but he assured me he is really called Cosmo. “Remember the character Cosmo Kramer on TV’s ‘Seinfeld’?”
“OK,” I agreed. “Cosmo it is, serving Berkeley patrons cosmic food and ET Music. How many people work here, Cosmo?”
“I’m the manager and general operations supervisor. Abner Katz is the head cook and executive chef.” He indicated a sallow, sullen-looking fellow working behind the order window. “Doris Chen is our cashier and bookkeeper.” Seated behind the cash register, a middle-aged Chinese woman smiled at us. Cosmo indicated an Hispanic-looking young man working in the kitchen with Abner. “That’s Pablo Pino; he operates the dishwasher and handles receiving and storing of supplies. Pablo, Abner and I do the clean-up at the end of the day. Doris does the paperwork.
“This restaurant is semi-self-serve; nobody waits on tables. You give your order to Doris and pay her. She gives you a number and passes your order to Abner, who puts your food on the shelf there, where you can pick it up when you hear your number called. You bus your own table and stack your dirty dishes over there. It’s an informal operation. I help out some in the kitchen, but Abner doesn’t like anyone except him doing the cooking.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Abner nod his head firmly at this point.
I looked through the menu. ”Wow!” I exclaimed. “Who did these great astronomical descriptions?” I asked. “Was it Felix?”
“Felix did a few of them,” agreed Cosmo, “but most were written by a UC astronomy professor, Dr. Winston, who comes in a lot. He’s very interesting. You should talk to him.”
I continued the interview, asking Cosmo: “This broccoli and nut salad: you say it’s from Epsilon Eridani? Did the broccoli actually come from out there?”
Cosmo frowned and gave a dismissive wave of a hand. “Of course not. Epsilon Eridani is too far away to have any exchange of perishable goods."
He pointed to the list of items on the menu. “Please notice that every menu item says ‘inspired by.’ All of the places inspiring our ET cuisine are located very far away, light-years distant, out among the stars.”
“No, we do not have an interstellar food supplier.” Cosmo smiled.
“Actually, our food raw materials are all quite local; I don’t think anything comes from farther than Fresno. When we say ‘extra-terrestrial,’ we’re talking about a style of cuisine, not where the raw food comes from. Look, when you visit the Chinese restaurant down the street, do you ask if all the food makings come from China? Maybe a few spices might be imported, but the broccoli, chicken and rice were all produced right here in California.”
Cosmo picked up a menu and flourished it. “All ingredients for all the dishes in here were produced on planet Earth. But when you try one of our dishes, we hope you will find the experience out of this world.” He grinned again.
I asked, “How did you decide this is an Epsiloni-style dish?”
He replied, “We got the idea for the salad from one of our customers, who listened to music from Epsilon Eridani, from which he claimed to have channeled ET.”
Cosmo stabbed a finger toward me. “Hey, you can travel to Epsilon Eridani yourself and check it out, but it would be a long trip if you’re using anything as slow as NASA’s current spacecraft. Or you can put on your earphones and get the word directly from Epsilon Eridani yourself, using the ET Music — if you have the same talent as our customer. He, and some others too, think they have channeled the thoughts of the beings who live, cook and eat on a planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani. It sure is fun to pretend we have a cosmic food connection.”
I thought of something. “Isn’t Alpha Centauri closer to Earth than Epsilon Eridani?” I asked. “Why don’t you have some Centauri-style dishes on your menu?”
Cosmo shrugged. “We don’t seem able to channel anything from Alpha Centauri. It might be that there is no intelligent life there. It is a multiple star system, so maybe there aren’t any stable orbits where planets can evolve Earth-like life.”
I persisted: “What about planets that are not Earth-like? Could they have a cuisine?”
He chuckled. “They better be Earth-like if you expect the cuisine to be edible by Earthlings. Well, actually, we can’t tell for sure from our channeling what kind of planet we’re talking to, let alone whether the beings look anything like us.
“Abner, our cook here in the restaurant, has the theory that the ET beings are very different from us, but somehow the channeling process, because it goes through two minds, effects a translation from what they like to eat in their environment into what we can cook and enjoy here. Enough elements of their cuisine must somehow correspond to ours in order to make the translation work. We probably could not eat the actual Epsiloni food; it might even be poisonous to us.”
That theory made me think of another question. “So it appears that you can only channel successfully from an earth-like planet, or at least a planet whose pattern of life bears some resemblance to that of Earth? Have you tried tuning in a world like Jupiter? Have you tried any of the solar system objects where there might be life?” I tried to think of all the possibilities. “What about Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus,.... ” I wasn’t sure all these were likely life candidates.
Cosmo arched his eyebrows. “I didn’t know there were so many. I’m not sure we have tried all of them. I know there are radio waves coming out of Jupiter and maybe from some of its larger moons. Europa — that’s the moon which might have an ocean under its ice crust, right?” I nodded. “No, we don’t get any ET channeling from within our solar system, not so far anyway.” Cosmo, spread his hands apologetically. “We can keep trying.”
“Another thing,” I pursued. “Are there any meat dishes?”
“Good point,” Cosmo responded promptly. “Indeed, nearly all our dishes are vegetarian. This is where Abner’s translation theory might make sense. Perhaps no ET animal life forms match anything here, so we don’t get any translation. It might also be that we need to try harder with our channeling. Maybe we could tune in an ET beefsteak. But it would make our food more expensive.” Cosmo grinned. “Abner says that if anyone turns up edible life on Mars, he's ready to offer such dishes as Martian Meatballs or Martian Microbe Salad. They sound, delicious, don’t they?” Cosmo grimaced.
“So the whole idea of eating like an ET requires some faith? Doesn’t the Food and Drug Administration come after you? Could you be cited for lack of truth in food advertising?”
Cosmo gave a firm, negative head shake. “Our food is just as safe and nutritious as that in any other inspected Berkeley restaurant. You may well need some faith to accept that ET music really can be used to channel ETs. We don’t guarantee anything; anyone can give the tune a try.”
He continued. “We are not telling lies, any more than does the car salesman who likens the car on his display floor to a sports car. We might be selling some fantasies, but we think we are really channeling ET cuisine.”
Each to his own fantasy, I suppose. This made me recall, that morning, seeing a big tour bus coming down Bancroft Way. The company name displayed on its side was “Galactic Transportation.” I kind of suspect that I could not board this bus and expect to ride to another star.
Cosmo went on, “Yes, astronomers do get some radio transmissions from Alpha Centauri, but when we process them into ET Music, we get nothing that anyone, so far, has been able to channel.
“We do the same thing for Epsilon Eridani and get a broccoli and nut salad. We brought in Fritters from Fomalhaut."
“How about bagels from Betelgeuse?” I suggested facetiously.
“We do have the Betelgeuse Beet Treats.” Cosmo pointed to the menu item. “I have to admit that this dish was not actually channeled. We just thought it was a cute name. Same deal for ‘Sirius Sustenance.’ And the Vulcan flatbread of course was inspired by Star Trek."
Cosmo raised a finger, recalling something, and added, “A few weeks ago, we received a signal file taken by an astronomer who had looked at Betelgeuse. That huge star pulsates; it has roiling convection cells beneath its surface. Astronomers can see two pulse frequencies, one with a period of about one Earth year and the other of about six years. The music produced from it was a series of rumbling drum rolls, like thunder.
“You know Starman, right? Well, he thinks the pulsations of stars like Betelgeuse contain a message. His idea is that some stars are surrounded by a ‘Dyson Sphere’ of artificial satellites which capture most of its energy output, and while doing so, modulate the pulsations. Detection of a Dyson Sphere would indicate a very advanced ET civilization.
“But Betelgeuse is a red giant star, one of the biggest. If it replaced our sun, its surface would be out past the orbit of Mars; Earth would be barbecued inside Betelgeuse. Really big or bright stars are not likely to have any Earth-like planets, let alone a Dyson Sphere.
“I’m told that pulsations of the surface of a star are fairly common. The surface of our Sun shakes from ‘starquakes.’ I read where one astronomer described the surface vibrations of the various stars as a celestial symphony in which the smallest stars are flutes, the medium-sized ones are trombones and the giants are reverberating tubas. I really like that image.”
Cosmo continued on, saying “Johannes Kepler, the seventeenth-century astronomer after whom the Kepler spacecraft is named, theorized that Earth and all the other known planets made their own sounds — an arrangement that he called the music of the spheres.”
Later, I checked Wikipedia:
A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure originally described by Freeman Dyson. Such a "sphere" would be a system of orbiting solar power satellites meant to completely encompass a star and capture most or all of its energy output. Dyson speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization, and proposed that searching for evidence of the existence of such structures might lead to the detection of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life.
To me, it seems a safe bet that any civilization that is able to construct a Dyson Sphere would be able to transmit a coherent, understandable message to its stellar neighbors.
I ran my finger down the Café menu. “I see dishes from Tau Ceti, Groombridge 34 and Gliese 581. Those are all relatively nearby stars?”
Cosmo replied, “Yes, they are. But those last two, Groombridge and Gliese (he pronounced it GLEE-zuh), may not be reliable channeling results. Dr. Winston tells me that both of those are red dwarf systems. He says they might have habitable zones close-in, but red dwarfs have a tendency to put out flares, sudden bursts of energy which would be hard for Earth-like life to deal with.”
I asked, “So it’s possible that, for example, that the broccoli and nut salad might not be native to Epsilon Eridani at all?”
Cosmo shrugged. “Could be. We sure do sell a lot of that salad. I've read that Epsilon Eridani is much like our Sun. The system has at least one planet. There’s plenty of planet-forming material. It even has two asteroid belts. There might be plenty of planets with salad-eating folks out there.”
I asked Cosmo how the ET Music data processing had been set up. He referred me to Dr. Arthur Winston, the UC professor who did most of the star descriptions on the menu. Dr. Winston teaches in the Astronomy Department and does space science research. I phoned him and arranged an interview, at the Café.
Before leaving, I asked Cosmo if he is the owner of the SETI Café. He replied, “No, I’m just the manager. The owner is very reclusive; he lets the staff run the Café pretty much as they want. The staff members get periodic bonuses depending on the level of business. The owner arranges financing for the costs of obtaining and broadcasting ET Music, and he distributes grant money for SETI research in general.”
I asked if I could interview the owner; Cosmo said he’d do some asking, but he was pretty sure the owner didn’t want any public exposure at all.
“Anyway, I don’t think the owner knows much about the technical aspects of ET Music. I’m sure you’ll get a lot more out of talking with Dr. Winston.”
Dr. Arthur Winston is a pleasant man, about 45 years old, average height and build, with a florid face, a high forehead and a ruff of reddish hair. He was waiting for me, the next day, when I arrived at the SETI Café; he was sitting at a table, talking with Cosmo, who introduced me.
“Arthur, I think you’ll like this guy. He seems to be a nice, unbiased journalist.”
We shook hands. Dr. Winston got himself a cup of coffee and put in an order for some Tau Tofu. I ordered some Epsilon Eridani broccoli and nut salad.
“What is your connection with the ET Music?” I asked.
Dr. Winston explained. “I supervise the labs on Campus that receive and process the signals for ET Music. A couple of my students do the software programming and the tuning of the music extraction algorithms. ”
I asked, “Do you work with other researchers on this? Do you get any funding from National Science Foundation?”
Cosmo, sitting next to us, gave a short laugh.
Dr. Winston nodded to Cosmo and revealed to me: “Frankly, the science establishment doesn’t take any of this seriously. We do get some donations from interested private sources, but no government science funding at all. This stuff is too far out even for SETI. Basically, very few scientists accept that we can channel anything from ET Music that results in finding out what is going on at the star.”
“Few?” I said hopefully. “Do some scientists go along with channeling?” Dr. Winston looked uncomfortable. “I’m not sure I take it seriously myself. I certainly don’t write any scientific papers about what goes on here at the SETI Café. We do have a couple guys who are studying the channeling reports, but I think they’re writing a paper about urban folklore.”
Cosmo broke in: “Keep in mind that the SETI Café is only providing entertainment. Our customers are free to imagine whatever they want, as long as they spend money on our food.” He smiled brightly. “Any contact with extraterrestrial beings is an extra benefit.”
“So you don’t believe any of it?” I challenged Cosmo. “Hey,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his hands, “I’m not a scientist. I just manage a restaurant. I try to keep the customers happy so we make a buck. I suppose I do sort of believe some of the ET music channeling stuff. I’d like to. I keep an open mind.”
I asked Dr. Winston. “Is there any prospect of receiving actual signals from ETs, not just music artificially derived from star noises?”
“I think so,” he replied. “We should be able to hear some ET radio, TV and satellite transmissions. It’s possible that we could tune in to an ET Internet, depending on how much leakage there is from the ET satellite network.
“Remember that ET communication works both ways. Beings on the planets of other stars could develop the ability to detect the abundant radio signals Earth has been spewing for years.
“The reason we don’t hear ET could be that our technologically capable life form here on Earth is unique in the universe. But I doubt this. I think the more likely reason is that the vast interstellar distances severely attenuate such signals, and there’s a lot of interference.
“This situation could change in the near future. There’s a research group here working on a way to enhance interstellar signals. They’ve got some Foundation money to develop hardware and software to filter out interference and correct for distortion in interstellar radio signals. They call it Statistical Signal Enhancement (SSE). It makes use of techniques from covert surveillance, and even some engineering techniques used in cell phones. The idea is to acquire a fairly long sample of signal data and compute statistics to characterize elements of the signal which get lost. The statistics are used to regenerate the signal. It works best if there’s a lot of the same kind of signal to process. The SSE group might be able to pick up ET radio well enough to make sense of it. I know they have been working with some of the same ET signal sets that we use to produce ET Music.
“The SSE might enable SETI to do more general searches. Instead of concentrating on a single star, the radio telescope could be aimed at star clusters – dense concentrations of stars, in a shotgun approach, finely tuning the SSE parameters to pick out one signal from the multitude. Conventional searches of a star cluster get overwhelmed by all the natural signals.”
Felix told me later that he doesn’t agree with this. He thinks that when a star has close neighbors, its debris cloud will tend to remain too much disrupted to form planets. Felix would like to concentrate SETI on stellar neighborhoods similar to that of our solar system, where stars are few and far apart.
I wonder if there really is enough leakage from our Internet, from ground-based microwave or from the satellites, that some ET will eventually pick up our Wikipedia. Should we be endlessly repeating it to them? There would be the language problem, of course, a really a big problem, unless music somehow solves it.
It is faintly possible that some really clever ET will not only figure out our language, but show us how to write in such a way that anyone can understand us.
If we can figure out how to write in an ET-readable language, we should translate our Wikipedia into it, package it and beam it to where the ETs are. Last time I checked, Wikipedia articles are available in over 40 different languages, including Shqip (Albanian), Cymraeg (Welsh), Hrvatski (Croatian) and Esperanto.
When I entered the SETI Café around noon yesterday, everyone was listening to a new sound from the restaurant speakers.
It sure wasn’t voice or music. It was a repeated sequence of a short fast warble, followed by a longer ragged buzz. From my shortwave listening days, I thought I recognized a digital packet or FAX radio transmission.
Cosmo saw me standing listening at the doorway and came over. He gestured up at the speakers. “This is the latest thing from the stars,” he told me. “It’s a real signal, not something produced artificially by processing. The SETI people are pretty excited. It’s coming from some star that they haven’t listened to before, and it repeats. The radio telescope gets the same signal for about half an hour every couple months. This is the latest.”
I saw Felix, the astronomy student, having lunch at a table in back. I went over to talk to him. “What is this new stuff?”
Felix replied, “You remember Dr. Winston telling you about the technique of Statistical Signal Enhancement? Well, they actually got it to work to some degree. When they tried it on HD85, they got this stuff.
“Sounds like packet radio,” I offered. “It might be,” agreed Felix.
We both listened for a minute or so. Felix said, “You know, this sure sounds like some radio transmission here on Earth that has become mixed with the signals from the star, via reflection, cross-talk, power line pickup, whatever. But the SETI people think they’ve eliminated those possibilities. They say it is definitely coming from this specific star HD85, and definitely repeats.
“The signal is definitely centered on HD85. After study of the radio telescope records made it clear that we get the signal every 54 days, the Parkes observatory in Australia tried pointing their antenna a little away from the star when the signal was coming in; when they did that, they saw the signal fade off. Local interference seems ruled out. They tried listening to other stars at the same times as these transmissions are being received, at the same frequency, and they don’t pick up this signal. It’s unique to this star. If it’s a hoax, then it has to be some kind of inside job at several radio observatories."
“So more than one radio observatory is reporting this signal?” I inquired.
“Yes, several are,” Felix replied. “The HD85 star is in the constellation Vela, down in the southern hemisphere. What you’re hearing came from the Parkes radio telescope in Australia, but we are getting the same stuff from Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile.”
“What do we know about the star?” I asked. “You called it HD85?”
Felix explained: “That’s short for HD 85512. The star doesn’t have a common name. The number 85512 is the star's serial number in the Henry Draper Catalog of Star Spectra. It was just shortened it to HD85. The star is a 7th-magnitude orange dwarf (spectral type K5), 36 light-years distant in the constellation Vela. It was discovered by a planet-hunting team using HARPS (High-Accuracy Radial-Velocity Planet Searcher), the super-precise spectrometer mounted on the European Space Organization's 3.6-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The star's slight radial-velocity wobble indicates that the planet has a mass of at least 3.6 Earths and probably not a great deal heavier than that.
“The probable planet is called HD85512b. It orbits the star every 54.43 days. It is estimated that temperatures on the planet’s surface range from 85 to 120 degrees (F). The spectrum shows plenty of water, so there’s probably plenty of humidity. The reason it might not be too hot for life is that the surface temperature of its sun is about 3200 K, much cooler than the 5700 K of our Sun.”
Felix added, “There's no way to tell from mass alone whether the planet is small and rocky — like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — or large and gassy, more like a mini-Neptune.
“For HD85512b to be rocky, it must have a diameter around 1.4 times that of Earth. If the planet's diameter ends up being around twice that of Earth, HD85512b will have a density more like that of gas-and-ice-rich Neptune.
“Of course even if the climate of this planet is as balmy as a heated swimming pool, there's no guarantee that it harbors life. Water is the most fundamental ingredient for life, but many other ingredients are necessary. Because the planet is so far away, it is difficult to observe much more than the mass.”
I asked Felix directly. “What do you think we are listening to?”
“I think it is messages,” was the prompt reply. “If you listen closely, it’s not all repeats of the same stuff. Oh — I should tell you that the stuff playing on the speakers here is a loop, the same thing again and again. The message doesn’t come in that often or for that long.
"Some of us think we’re hearing leakage from a powerful transmitter, sending commands to a spacecraft. The 54 day interval between messages is because the beam points toward Earth only once per orbit.
“You could be right that it’s something like packet radio. I hear a header (that warble) followed by the variable-length data part of the message. That could be a packet.”
“Any idea why we haven’t heard these messages before?” I inquired.
"We have heard them before. Parkes and the other observatories have been going over their archives for HD85 observations and applying Statistical Signal Enhancement. The HD85 signals started appearing regularly about two years ago. It might be that the HD85 ETs just started transmitting on this frequency, or their transmitter just acquired whatever feature (or defect) that is causing the signal to leak out to us. Remember, there have been numerous interesting signals received by SETI over the years, but none of them would repeat. This one does, reliably.”
Cosmo had turned down the volume on the restaurant speakers. I indicated the patrons still listening on their earphones, and asked Cosmo. “Are they hearing the HD85 messages?”
"Probably not," Cosmo replied. “We just put HD85 on the restaurant speakers for a while today. It’s kind of boring. It's annoying some customers, so I turned it down. The people with the earphones are probably nearly all listening to the more usual ET Music, from other stars – or to their personal music collection.”
I had to agree that the warble-buzz did get tiresome after a while. But while I listened, I was imagining commercial messages being exchanged on one of HD85’s planets, or perhaps weather broadcasts, warning of HD hurricanes. Or maybe the HD people just launched their first satellite, I thought, and we’re hearing their commands and telemetry.
I phoned Dr. Winston at his office. He told me that his students were very excited about the HD85 development. They were looking into all possibilities of packet format. One student was trying various ways to make sense of the warble part as the packet header; it does seem to be fixed-length.”
I told him my theory about telemetry. “That’s a good possibility.” he said. “Perhaps a spacecraft got launched at HD85 two years ago, and is now exploring their local solar system, like our Voyager probes did here. We’re getting leaked telemetry packets from a powerful transmitter used for deep-space communications. That makes more sense than picking up a local weather FAX.”
I thought back to when Pulsars were first detected. At first, nobody believed that such regular signals could be natural; they had to be from Little Green Men. Maybe HD85, or one of its planets, or its local asteroid belt, is in the middle of some process of nature that sounds like packets.
I asked Dr. Winston how many scientists are buying the notion that ETs from HD85 are sending messages. He said that nearly all the scientists he’s talked to recently are waiting for somebody to finally identify an Earth origin for the messages. A few are a little uneasy that we haven’t been able to pull out recognizable content. If the messages are really somehow coming from somewhere on Earth, even if they are being mangled, we ought to recognize a little bit of familiar code or packet pattern.
He said, “I’ll start believing that we're hearing from ET right after somebody decodes an HD85 packet and makes sense of it. But I’m not sure how we would recognize such a message as extraterrestrial, and not somebody’s data packet from Earth. What would really blow some minds would be recognizing copies of radio signals that we ourselves were sending out some 72 years ago, having made the round-trip to HD85. Do you remember the movie ‘Contact’ in which Earth picked up an ET playback of a Hitler speech?”
Message from the Stars
Astronomers have finally picked up a message from an ET.
Newly developed computer equipment at UC Berkeley has processed signals from a radio telescope and extracted what appears to be actual message packets from an ET civilization. The packets are coming from a star called “HD85” which is 36 light-years from Earth. The message is in code of some kind.
Dr. Arthur Winston, head of the UC Berkeley Statistical Enhancement Lab, says the probable planet sending the packets has an average temperature between 85 and 120 degrees (F). The spectrum shows plenty of water, so there’s probably plenty of humidity.
Another UC astronomer, Dr. Felix Fanchot, said “Because the planet is so far away, it is difficult to observe much more than the mass. There's no way to tell from mass alone whether the planet is small and rocky — like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — or large and gassy, more like a mini-Neptune. If the planet's diameter ends up being more than twice that of Earth, it will be like a hot Neptune.”
But water is the most fundamental ingredient for life. And now this far-off water world is sending us messages. Stay tuned, Earthlings.
Of course, the tabloid papers tried to make the HD85 packets sound like either an announcement of an alien invasion or religious revelation about the imminent apocalypse.
One newspaper speculated that the message, when decoded, will turn out to be an ad for vacation condos on tropical islands of this warm moist world. The article did not suggest how purchasers would get to HD85.
The most perceptive comment in any paper was a quote from a teenager, who said that the messages weren’t aimed at us, and that picking them out of the radio telescope signals was like hacking into somebody’s email exchange in a foreign language. We shouldn’t expect to understand what the messages are about.
Cosmo has done his bit for publicity. There’s a new item on the SETI Café menu:
Inspired by HD 85512, a solitary orange star approximately 36 light-years distant in the constellation Vela. The star is approximately one billion years older than the Sun. It is extremely chromospherically inactive, only slightly more active than Tau Ceti. The star is known to host one low-mass planet, named HD 85512 b. It is just inside the habitable zone. The planet could potentially be cool enough to host liquid water if the planet exhibits more than 50% cloud coverage. HD 85512 b is currently the third best candidate for habitability according to the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog.
This is descriptive overkill, perhaps. I heard that, when he saw this description, Abner the cook shouted “it’s just lemonade!” I think either Felix or Dr. Winston must have handed Cosmo an unedited news item from one of the technical journals, for him to get this item description.
I bet this “water planet” turns out to be something hot and poisonous, like Venus, and the HD85 message is actually coming from some place closer to Earth. I mentioned this idea to one of the newspaper reporters, but he didn’t use it.
After the media stories appeared, Café patrons tended to lose interest in HD85. It’s not at all musical. It is boring, and there doesn't seem to ever be anything new. A few claim to be channeling something from the warble-buzz. One guy said it makes him think of fried eggs.
Abner heard that remark and decided to add "Eggs HD" to the menu; it's a variant of Eggs Benedict with polenta instead of ham slices, and something other than Hollandaise sauce. It sold quite well at first, so Cosmo stifled his objection to serving a dish that was not strictly vegetarian.
Nobody among the UC researchers has been able to make any sense of the HD85 messages, but just the fact that they've been picked up has stimulated efforts to detect messages from other stars.
A clever suggestion from a Cal undergraduate has caused a surprising discovery. He convinced a friend who works with the SSE software processing to try a very simple filter on the signals from stars. Instead of looking for packet formats, FM radio or other such complex schemes, this filter looks for regular makes and breaks in the signal — dots and dashes, the kind of primitive signaling which was used in the early days of wireless radio communication here on Earth.
Success was achieved in processing radio signals from the star Tau Ceti, picked up by the radio dish located in the hills in back of Stanford University.
The signal at one frequency showed a short burst of a make-and-break pattern, which looked like Morse Code. Gaps had been appearing in this and other signals, but they were thought to be artifacts of SSE processing. With the filter, the code pattern became evident.
The code pattern only appeared once, and lasted for just 15 seconds. It’s as though some ET Marconi on a planet of Tau Ceti had been trying out his transmitter, and the signal happened to leak out to Earth. The signal seems too good. One would expect a “primitive” radio transmitter not to stay on one frequency, but to smear over a band of frequencies, but the carrier of these dots and dashes is very much narrow-band –showing up only very close to one specific frequency.
Of course it wasn’t actually Morse Code, but the make-break pattern sure looked like dots and dashes. A little more software processing identified groups of dots and dashes, separated by gaps; the groups presumably represented letters – at least that would be the case with Morse Code heard on Earth.
Soon, a list of the dot-dash code groups of “Tau Morse” was worked out.
To make the message easy to look at, each code group was assigned to a printable letter. The most frequent code group was assigned to 'E' and so on, following the frequency of occurrence of letters in the English alphabet. A file of “Tau Text” was produced and made public.
The student spread the news about Tau Morse and Tau Text. Very soon, patrons at the SETI Café were listening to the code and studying the text.
Tau Ceti is about 12 light-years distant. This star has been extensively studied as a possible target for NASA’s Optical Interferometry Mission, to detect Earth-like planets, so there is plenty of signal data available. But so far, searches of telescope archives, at Stanford and elsewhere, do not show any make-break patterns. The dot-dash signal doesn’t appear at Stanford prior to about two weeks ago. No other radio telescopes have picked up the dot-dash at the same time as the Stanford dish. So far, it looks like nobody else was watching Tau Ceti at the right time, or if they did, they were not listening at the right frequency.
The Tau text messages do not made any sense. For fun, the code groups have been converted from letters to musical notes of various pitches and durations. This has generated more “ET Music” for Café patrons to groove on.
I stopped in at the SETI Café with my laptop, asked Abner to make me some Tau Tofu, and listened to the raw dots and dashes for a while. It does sound like telegraphy, but rather slow and deliberate. I used to be able to read International Morse Code, but none of this Tau stuff made any sense to me. I tried the music version. It was pleasant tinkles, but nothing more. Then I looked at the text, where the code groups had been assigned to letters. I saw stuff like NSAXBUTPOADPNFAIFSFA which doesn’t mean much to me.
I had a conversation with a regular Café patron named Frank, who seems to know a lot about ancient language. When I described the Tau Text as gibberish, Frank told me about the Voynich Manuscript, which consists of cryptic character sequences, so far undecoded. There are several books about this manuscript, which was found somewhere in Europe, allegedly in Italy, and dates to the early 15th century.
It could well be that the Voynich text is actual gibberish, deliberately composed by someone as a joke. It could also be a code, but it seems strange that in all these years, there has never been anyone able to read it. Also, the manuscript has plenty of fancy lettering and pictures; I’ve looked it up on the Web; it’s quite a work of art.
Frank then went on to tell me that if English text were all run together without spaces between words, it might still be readable by someone who was familiar with the language, but to anyone else it would be gibberish. He said that Roman Latin around 200 AD was written “scriptio continua” — without spaces between words or even to spaces separate sentences, because in those days reading was an elite skill, and the elite were supposed to be so familiar with the writing in use that they could recognize words even without the spaces.
Frank pointed out that scriptio continua remains in use today, in Internet addresses like “www.newmediacampaigns.com”
While I was pondering the Tau Text on my screen, my bearded friend Starman looked over my shoulder. He offered an interesting suggestion: the letter 'A' appears quite regularly; maybe it marks the space between words. Possibly, but the “message” still made no sense to me, in any language.
I’m sure glad I was born into a time and place when literacy is nearly universal, so none of us have to deal with scriptio continua. But I still can’t make any sense of Tau Text.
The SSE lab keeps processing radio signal files from Tau Ceti, but there has been nothing new to report for over two weeks now. Maybe the ET with the code key has switched to a different radio frequency or finally figured out how to send voice.
Now there's Morse from another source. It's possible that the civilization at a second star may have also begun tapping a code key.
The Mauna Kea Radio Observatory in Hawaii reported a burst of dot-dash in a radio signal from HD 10180, another Sun-like star with a large planet close-in. Like the signals from Tau Ceti, the transmissions came as make-and-break at one frequency. Only one burst of code was received.
The probable planet is a large gas giant, about the size of Saturn, with an orbital period of 5-6 days. There is probably an Earth-sized planet there too, but too close-in to be life-bearing. The star HD 10180 is 127 light-years distant in the southern constellation Hydrus.
The new source was provisionally labeled “HD10.”
The HD10 code groups were identified and assigned to letters. So far, nobody has been able to get any intelligence from the resulting text. There has been only the one transmission to work with; nothing else has arrived since.
Now that two “beginner” ET transmitters have appeared, the researchers have been looking for more signals with make-break patterns. It makes sense that there should be a lot of ETs just getting started.
One of the great things about the Internet is that any problem can quickly and easily be put before a vast number of minds. Maybe a downside is the foolish fancies that people come up with, based on little more than wishful thinking. But a major upside is that it is possible for some very clever person to study the data and make a major breakthrough with an inspired guess.
This just happened with the HD85 messages. A retired engineer named Bob Weiss, who lives in Portland, used the Internet to obtain some HD85 data files from the SSE lab. Working at his home, Bob ran it through some of his own equipment and software. He recognized bits, encoded by a shift between two radio frequencies: one frequency representing 1, the other frequency representing 0. This is called Frequency-Shift-Keying, or FSK.
I found out that many telephone-line modems have used audio FSK (AFSK) to send and receive data at rates up to about 1200 bits per second. Even today, North American caller ID on the phone system uses AFSK.
Having identified bits, Bob claims to have also recognized bytes.
Most computer systems today use an 8-bit byte to represent a character; larger data structures are made up of arrays of these bytes. Knowing that the 8-bit byte is the basic building block helps to figure out the message structure of a bit stream.
But it appears that whoever/whatever is transmitting from HD85 is not using an 8-bit byte. The message structure makes sense if one assumes a 12-bit byte.
Going forward from Bob’s insight, Dr. Winston’s students have developed a pretty good case for HD85 to be sending telemetry packets. They can see 12-bit and maybe 48-bit numbers. There’s a possible 5-byte (60 bit) data structure which could be a scaled, or floating-point number.
These days, in the afternoons, the SETI Café sometimes looks like a study hall, with people sitting at the tables pondering possible messages from the stars. Most have a laptop computer in front of them, and a plate of star-inspired food next to it. They are either studying HD Text or trying to make sense of Tau Morse or using their earphones to listen to ET Music. At least they are eating while they do these things, and the Café is making money.
Someone has set up an “ET BLOG” which purports to be alien Internet. It’s mostly ads, but it does give some flavor of what it would be like to have an ET Internet connected to ours. The site pretends to have invented a whole new Internet domain for ET communication. Message headers give fake email addresses like email@example.com and Marconi@tauceti.eti
Dr. Winston, Cosmo and I got together for a late breakfast recently. I had some Tau Tofu while Cosmo ate some Eggs HD. Cosmo remarked that he really likes the Eggs HD, but sales of it have fallen off, possibly because some people think it is too fattening.
Dr. Winston announced he was going to order some Goldilocks Oatmeal, because it was appropriate for what he had to tell us about the latest star message discovery. I picked up a menu and soon found the item he was talking about. I read it off:
Goldilocks Oatmeal with Fruit and Nuts
Inspired by the star HD 28185, a yellow dwarf star similar to our Sun about 138 light-years distant in constellation Eridanus. It has a planet which takes 1.04 years to orbit its parent star. This orbit lies entirely within its star's habitable zone, the "goldilocks zone" where conditions are "just right" for Earth life. But the planet is big, like Jupiter, and may not have a solid surface.
"Right," said Dr. Winston. “What's amazing is that when I wrote that astronomical information for the menu item, I had no idea we'd actually hear something from the star. The Jupiter-sized planet doesn’t look like a good candidate for ET, but we could be hearing from life on one of the planet’s larger moons.
“The SSE is now delivering from this star what looks like another telemetry stream, with bits encoded by FSK, but using a different pair of frequencies. My students have found the same header-data packet pattern that we see in HD85. It even appears to use a 12-bit byte.
"The mechanism for beaming the signal at Earth may be similar to that for HD85. We see about 20 minutes of data about once a year, which makes sense because the probable planet has a period of 1.04 Earth years.
"We're going to give the HD28185 source the short designation of ‘HD28.’
"HD28 is 138 light-years distant, in the constellation Eridanus, in roughly the same direction from Earth as Epsilon Eridani. But the two stars are nowhere near each other in space.
"My guess is that HD28 is yet another ET civilization with a space research program, maybe operating a Voyager-like craft. They are sending packet telemetry over a deep space radio transmitter, but they don't seem to be using the same floating-point number format as HD85."
I had a question. “Thanks to Statistical Signal Enhancement, now we’ve picked up what looks like telemetry packets from two different ET civilizations each of which appears to have a space exploration program. Why is it that we never pick up ordinary radio broadcasts? Don’t these civilizations have news broadcasts, weather forecasts, talk radio? Do they listen to classical music? Is there ET popular music?”
Felix had joined our group while I was talking. He broke in: “It’s actually a good question. My guess is that an ET deep space transmitter puts out a much stronger – and directional – signal than does ET commercial radio, so we’re much more likely to pick up telemetry.”
Dr. Winston agreed, “That’s true. Another reason may be that we have been concentrating study on the higher frequencies. ET radio stations may well operate down closer to our AM and FM bands. The SSE itself may not work as well at lower frequencies. I’ll have to check with the SSE group and see what they say. Actually, the HD28 star looks especially likely to have an Earth-sized planet. Maybe we should look at lower frequencies and try harder to detect leakage from their local broadcasts.”
“You know,” he added, “the famous ‘Wow!’ signal could well have been a snippet of this kind of ET telemetry. It was only 72 seconds long, but it could have been compressed data. Ah, but it was on the neutral Hydrogen frequency, wasn’t it? No space researcher would use that for telemetry. Oh well, just an idle thought.” He gave an embarrassed grin.
“Anyway,” Dr. Winston continued, “we are pleased that the SSE has delivered two distinct yet similar telemetry streams. The staff of the SSE lab does a great job. They have great technology, but so much of what they get depends on luck. Running the SSE involves a lot of guesswork. Also, some of the frequencies drift, because of magnetic and electric fields in space. Even when they’ve gotten locked into a signal, they can lose lock later on.
“I’ve had several people ask me why HD85 and HD28 don’t have a SETI program if they support a space program. My answer is that they may have some of the same constraints we do. Their governments may see space exploration as good hard science and see SETI as childish playing around. Also, we should keep in mind that deliberately beaming a message to a possible cosmic neighbor is a high-energy, expensive proposition. We do very little of that kind of thing ourselves. Why should we expect the ETs to be any different?”
Dr. Winston and Felix said that all the details will be presented at the up-coming conference on ET messages, to be held next week on Campus.
Dr. Winston has organized a scientific conference to discuss all the ET transmissions and their possible interpretation. I attended the main session on the UC Campus. The auditorium was packed full.
In his introduction, Dr. Winston said the SETI Café in downtown Berkeley was a great place to go for lunch. I'm sure Cosmo appreciated that plug.
Dr. Winston began by presenting the astronomical information about Tau Ceti.
“The star is stable, similar to the Sun, but only 78% as massive. It is cooler, and its spectrum does not show as many of the heavier elements which make up rocky planets, as does the spectrum of the Sun.
“No planets have been detected, but there is 10 times as much dust and asteroidal debris around Tau Ceti as there is in our solar system. Tau Ceti has been listed as a target star for SETI searches. It is close, just less than 12 light-years distant.”
He then addressed the “Morse Code” signal being received from Tau Ceti.
“As you may know, one frequency received from Tau Ceti sometimes shows a pattern of dots and dashes, as if someone over there had built a primitive radio transmitter with enough power so that some of its signal leaks out into interstellar space. Tau Ceti is not a variable, pulsating star. I have no suggestions for a natural process which might produce the dots and dashes. They don’t appear all the time anyway.
“I realize that a lot of people are suspicious that the dots and dashes were put into the signal here on Earth. There is definitely a short pause between dot-dash code groups, so everyone is assuming that the groups represent letters in some alphabet. But everyone agrees that Tau Text is gibberish. Several translation schemes have been tried. None of them yield anything recognizable.
“The Tau Ceti dot-dash transmissions don't come in all the time. Days will go by with all frequencies being free of them. But the website recordings can be played anytime.”
Someone asked if anyone has picked up interstellar Morse Code from any other star. The answer, given by Dr. Winston, was: “No, just those very short bursts from the two sources, Tau Ceti and HD 10180. I’m still wondering about that. I’d think there ought to be more ETs out there who are just starting with radio. I also think more than just the two telescopes should have captured the signals, even if they were of such short duration. Something’s fishy. But yes, researchers are definitely listening for dots and dashes from other stars; so far, no more have been detected.”
Dr. Winston then summarized the astronomical information for HD85.
“This star, HD85512, also known as Gliese 370, has a K-type spectrum and is 36 light-years distant, in the southern hemisphere constellation Vela. There is at least one planet, known as HD85512b, which is 3.5 times the mass of Earth and has a year of 54.4 days. We call this kind of planet a ‘super Earth’ because it seems Earth-like but is somewhat bigger than Earth. It is a rocky planet, maybe with water oceans; it is not a gas giant like Neptune."
One of the researchers presented a good case for the HD85 message having a fixed-length packet header. The same byte value marks the start of each header, and each header is 12 12-bit bytes long. Some of the header might be an address. No data length code or checksum was evident, but the total message length appears to be fixed at 144 bytes (12 times 12). The transmission rate is very slow – 576 bits/second (48 12-bit bytes per second). Whatever data the ETs are sending must be very valuable. It looks like the same packet is sent at least 3 times. The presenter suggested that the HD85 ETs might have 6 fingers on each hand, based on their evident fixation on the number 12.
I suppose that some ET, observing that Earth is using an 8-bit byte, might conclude that we have 4 fingers on each hand – or 8. It sure is easy to read too much into this kind of information. These ETs might not even have hands. But somehow, they manage to operate communications for a space program. My guess is the HD85 ETs do indeed have hands, and not radically different from ours. But I have a human bias.
Dinosaurs were around far longer than we humans have been so far, but no group of dinosaurs ever built cities or developed a technological civilization, probably because none of them had good limbs for grasping and manipulating. I’m waiting for a paleontologist to turn up a fossilized knife from a dinosaur site – or a fossilized dinosaur-developed computer!
Other people have been studying the HD85 data as numbers.
Within the packets, a 60-bit data unit (5 12-bit bytes) might represent a floating-point number (an integer plus an exponent used to scale it, e.g. 2.345 x 10^6). This pattern is often seen in the body of HD85 messages.
An older scientist in the audience noted that Control Data Corporation computers (CDC), now defunct, used exactly this 12/60 bit scheme back in the 1960s. He speculated that the souls of some CDC computer designers may have floated out to HD85 and inspired the ET engineers there.
An enthusiastic student suggested that we are hearing a packet stream from the HD85 Internet. Maybe we could build a gateway and connect our Internet to theirs and look at HD85 websites. Nice idea. We might need the services of an HD85 interpreter.
Dr. Winston then gave a summary of the astronomical information for HD28.
“The star HD 28185 is 138 light-years distant. It is a yellow dwarf star, spectral type G5V, very similar to our Sun, which is G2V. It has a planet in the habitable zone with earthlike year and a circular orbit. The planet appears to be big, like Jupiter. It is possible that the HD28 packets are coming either from an another, undetected Earth-sized planet, or from one of the giant planet’s larger moons.”
Work on the HD28 packets was still incomplete at the time of the conference. One researcher summarized what had been determined. He said that the HD28 packets are more mysterious than those from HD85. The headers do not always start with the same byte value and the messages are probably of various lengths, but it's hard to tell, because not much of the data stays the same from message-to-message.
Some 12-bit, and maybe 48-bit numbers may have been recognized. HD28 telemetry does not appear to use the CDC floating point.
These conclusions are tentative. But it does seem very likely that, like those from HD85, the HD28 packets represent deep space telemetry. Dr. Winston offered the opinion that the technical ETs at HD28 do not appear to have been exchanging information with those at HD85.
I wrote down some memorable remarks, heard at the close of the conference.
There was a talk from Don Sharp, a tall young black man, an engineer from the SSE group. Don described working with “marginal signals.” These are signals which have incompletely survived SSE processing. It’s clear that a signal was present, but not enough of it emerges to provide coherent information. Some of these marginal signals look like they may be providing lines of information, or an array, which could very well be an image. So far, this has been guesswork, and not enough information is present to determine the image size, or where it begins and ends. An additional difficulty is how to determine pixel intensity and color. We are not sure the ETs see images as we do, especially colors.
Asked which sources provide these marginal signals, Don mentioned HD85 and Epsilon Eridani, but cautioned that the interpretation is almost entirely guesswork; there’s just not enough information there.
“Do you have any images of an ET?” asked one young student. “No,” was the reply, "but some of our people have experimentally jig-sawed together some fragments which might be part of such an image. We don’t get any recognizable figure. If we get ever anything close to a complete picture of any ET, we’ll be sure to bring it to the SETI Café for posting on the wall.” That got applause and some chuckles.
I began to wonder if the Voynich Manuscript could be some kind of old record of ET messages. As usual, Starman had an even more exotic interpretation. He thinks that the Voynich Manuscript is text left behind by some ETs who visited Earth back around 1200-1300 AD. Asked whether anyone in Europe back then had actually become fluent in the ET language, and if so, should we find more written material in the Voynich script/language, Starman had no answers.
There were at least 4 reporters at the conference, including one from the Associated Press and one from Reuters.
Here’s the story the AP produced, with a little help from me:
Two ET Civilizations have a Space Program
There was a conference held today at UC Berkeley, covering the recent discovery of two sources of messages from an ET civilization. SETI is now being taken very seriously.
Both sources are far-away stars. HD85 is 36 light-years away and HD28 is 138 light-years. Both sources appear to consist of packet telemetry like that which NASA and ESA use to communicate with spacecraft like Pioneer and Voyager. Earth receives the signal by accident, every time the powerful ET transmitter beam sweeps past us due to the source planet’s orbital motion.
Neither message is meant for us. All we can do is eavesdrop on their science, or whatever part of their science we can figure out. HD85 seems to be using a scaled number format, or “floating point”, identical to a now obsolete family of computers. It’s unclear what scaled number format HD28 is using. But it is now very clear that there are at least two extraterrestrial civilizations at least as smart as we are, because they’re doing their own space research.
It doesn’t look like either ET group will be visiting us, because of the distance, but the star around which their planet orbits is in both cases very much like our Sun. We might well find these beings look a lot like us.
Would they have broadcast TV? One of the UC technical people, Dr. Sharp, was asked whether the new equipment could pick up commercial radio and TV broadcasts from these planets. His reply was “Broadcast radio and TV are much lower in power than telemetry. We might pick up some of it from 10-12 light-years distant, but probably 36 light-years is too far; 138 light-years certainly is. We’re very lucky to be able to capture their telemetry transmissions.”
Felix Fanchot, a UC astronomy graduate student, said this: “We are definitely going to look at several Sun-like stars which are close enough for us to pick up their local radio and TV. Examples are Epsilon Eridani, Alpha Centauri and Tau Ceti. We may soon be hearing an ET announcer.”
Someone at the conference mentioned that Tau Ceti is supposed to be putting out Morse Code. Maybe the radio technology of those ETs is still too primitive? Fanchot replied, “Sure, it’s possible that the Tau Ceti civilization is just getting started with radio. The Tau Ceti star is somewhat older than our Sun, but evolution might run slower out there. Also, we’re not completely sure that the dots and dashes are really coming from Tau Ceti.”
Here’s another newspaper story, just about the Tau Ceti dot-dash:
Tau Ceti Key Clicker Just Learning How
The nearby star Tau Ceti appears to be sending us a rather primitive message. The civilization there must be just figuring out how to use radio, and some of their transmissions have leaked out, crossed 12 light-years and were picked up by the big dish at Stanford University.
At one frequency, the signal was broken into off-and-on segments which appear to be the dots and dashes of an ET version of Morse Code. Scientists have no suggestions for a natural process which might produce the dots and dashes. Tau Ceti is not a variable, pulsating star. The ET Morse doesn’t appear all the time anyway.
Some software was used to identify the code groups, like dot-dash, dash-dot and dot-dot-dot-dash. These represent letters in the ET alphabet, but nobody has any idea what they are. To produce readable text, the code groups have been listed by frequency of appearance, and then assigned to letters in the same frequency order as English. For example, the most frequent letter is ‘E’.
Of course, the resulting text is not English, but stuff like NSAXBUTPOADPNFAIFSFA, which doesn’t mean much. Language experts at UC Berkeley are working on identifying words in the ET language. Maybe we’ll soon realize the ET has keyed “HELLO THERE.”
Scientists are now listening for other possible ETs with a code key. They may have found one more, in a signal from the star HD 10180, detected at the radio telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
Some scientists are suspicious of ET Morse, suspecting that somebody has interfered with the recording of radio telescope signals. Other scientists think there should be plenty of such ET radio neophytes, if there really are so many ET civilizations out there. Many more than two radio telescopes should have captured such signals.
So far, the messages don’t make any sense to anyone on Earth, but this may change. If we’re hearing radio from Tau Ceti, then Tau Ceti must be hearing radio from Earth.
The article gave the URL for listening to Tau Morse and for reading Tau text.
Even the radio talk show hosts have gotten on the ET message bandwagon. I heard some remarks by the conservative commentator Lem Rushmore.
Lem strongly suspects that many of the ET messages are fake, produced by scientists trying to promote more funding for themselves.
But Lem says that if ET civilizations are really out there in great numbers, that fact makes it clear that smart beings like humans are not going to be destroyed by global warming or running out of oil, so we on Earth don’t have to worry about such things. Lem speculated that HD85 must have a robust Republican Party.
"Hey, here comes one of my colleagues." Dr. Winston beckoned a new arrival over to where Starman, Felix, Cosmo and I were sitting in the SETI Café and introduced him to the group. "Please welcome Dr. Samuel Strauss. He teaches Electrical Engineering at CalTech. He was here for the recent conference. Sam is a bit of a critic of our ET messages."
Dr. Strauss was a tall pale man, mostly bald, but with thick dark-brown eyebrows. He was wearing a suit, which made him stand out from the other SETI Café customers.
“Hello folks,” said Dr. Strauss as he sat down. “I hope Arthur is right that there is a proliferation of ETs running space research programs out there among the stars, but I still think all these messages are too much like transmissions from Earth. Some years ago, there was a big flap about ET radio and it turned out that the transmissions were Earth signals reflected back from the Moon. My guess is that either we are seeing Earth messages transformed in some regular way, or the US Military is going to eventually admit that radio astronomers have stumbled onto one of their classified satellite channels.”
I asked, "So you think the alleged ET message packets are enough like packets generated on Earth that they are indeed actually Earth packets, but somehow transformed?"
“That's right,” Dr. Strauss replied. “I don't know how the signal gets into the radio telescopes, but an easy way to generate fake packets is to record packets from one of Earth's shortwave broadcasts, strip off identifying information, then run the packets through a transformation before re-sending them using 12-bit bytes.”
I felt a bit let down. “Oh,” I said, “so you think this is all a stellar scam?”
Dr. Strauss replied, “Keep in mind that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence opens up a wide field for fraud and practical jokes. We heard little or no likely transmissions for a very long time; now we are suddenly getting all these ET messages. It makes me suspicious.
“It’s a fair amount of work to make fake packets the way I just described. I sure wish these clever jokers would apply their skills to productive research.”
Dr. Winston asked, “Sam, do you think both the HD85 and HD28 messages are being produced by the same source?”
“Yes, I do,” replied Dr. Strauss. “It's very likely. Watch out for more so-called ‘packet’ messages from other stars as time goes by. I can't prove it, but I think somebody has found a way to take a laptop computer to radio telescope sites and splice the so-called ET signal into what is being recorded from the telescope. This stuff reminds me of the crop circles flap, which was also about aliens.”
Felix broke in at this point to repeat his story about watching the HD85 signal appear and disappear as the antenna shifted on and off the source star. “Could this be accomplished by somebody with a laptop?” he asked.
“Sure,” replied Dr.Strauss. "All it takes is an inside person. Scientific fraud has been successful from Piltdown Man to Cold Fusion because people just want to believe exciting stuff. The crop circles were made by people sneaking into fields at night. I think we have to look at the possibility of an inside job, at several observatories."
"You know," Dr. Strauss continued, “those CDC floating point numbers in the HD85 data really bother me. It's easy to brush them off as the work of a fraudster who once worked with CDC computers, but there's nothing to prevent an ET civilization from independently inventing this or any other particular computing technology. To be sure we’re really getting messages from an ET, we should look for either something that's clearly a copy of something generated on Earth many years ago, or, better, something that's totally novel, qualitatively different from anything we’ve ever produced on Earth.”
Cosmo asked, “What about the Morse Code from Tau Ceti? Is that the same joker at work?”
“Probably not,” replied Dr. Strauss. “Again, if there's nothing to prevent an ET from developing his own telegraph code, then there's nothing to prevent an Earth-based fraudster from doing the same." Dr. Strauss glanced over at me. "Look, I don't want to pick on journalists, but all the publicity coming out of the SETI Café has got to be motivating fraudsters and their copycats. Also, I notice that our code key operator has recently disappeared. Right?”
Dr. Strauss was referring to the fact that the Tau Morse had not been received at all for over a week. When it was coming in, it was broken up with numerous long gaps, some of them lasting a couple days. Also, Tau Morse came in far more frequently than either HD source. It's probably not from a beam swept past Earth by the orbital motion of a planet.
“OK, Sam,” Dr. Winston announced. “I’ll agree that ‘Tau Morse’ is probably a practical joke, and the joker has now gone into hiding. But I still hold out hope for the ET reality behind the HD packet messages. Several of my students are trying various ways to make sense of those messages. They are also sending the data all over the world for other students to work on. Something's sure to turn up, even if it is just uncovering a fraud.
“I suppose we should be encouraged about the common features of the HD digital transmissions. So far, they're based on binary 1 and 0 bits, not on a 3-way code or anything more complicated. It might be that, for all technical civilizations, the simplest scheme is the best, and the same basic technology will be worked out by everyone.
“Of course, for all we know right now, all the nearby ETs have been exchanging technical notes for years, and we on Earth are just joining their club.”
At lunchtime, I was hungry, so I went to the SETI café and put in an order for the Epsilon Eridani Salad, the healthy dish of chopped broccoli, mixed nuts, carrots and beans in a soy-based sauce.
While waiting for my order to be prepared, I stared at the wall poster of the Hubble Deep Field. This is an image built up from Hubble Space Telescope long-exposure images of a “blank” area of the sky in the constellation Ursa Major. The field of view is 5.3 square arc minutes, so small that only a few foreground stars of our Milky Way galaxy lie within it. Nearly all the objects in the image are remote galaxies, some showing tiny spirals, some just fuzzy stellar points. It shows how awesomely many stars there are in the universe.
Felix walked in, saw me staring at the wall poster, and joined me at my table. He wanted to tell me some news.
“Seeing you stare at the Hubble Deep Field made me think about what I recently heard about the SSE project. I was in their lab yesterday. They are implementing more software settings for their software and equipment, so they can easily tune to specific types of signals. The original setup works pretty well for picking up telemetry packets. Now they’re tuning for ET radio stations, which might be leaking voice and music into space.”
“Great idea,” I said. “I keep hearing about how radio and TV from Earth has been leaking out into space for years. Any ETs within 80 light-years are supposed to be benefiting from Earth’s dubious broadcast cultures, everything from “I Love Lucy” to “The Ascent of Man” or the Vietnam War and our political debates. It seems fair that Earth too should be passing through somebody else’s expanding radio bubble.
“So, anyway, the SSE folks think they can pick up ET broadcast leaks?”
“Yeah, they think they can,” Felix replied. “They’re starting by looking for FM stations. They are trying many different SSE parameter settings and carrier frequencies, looking for FM audio modulation especially.
“They told me they might possibly have a result from Epsilon Eridani. For one frequency, they picked up about 40 minutes of subcarrier with an FM signal. They demodulated the audio and heard some music. There were several 20-30 second bursts of static in it. They think the static might be voice, which might come out clearly if they used the right parameter settings. The Epsiloni music was plunky twangy stuff. One guy said it reminded him of a Japanese shamisen, a 3-stringed instrument played by both bowing and plucking. Of course, they are very suspicious that they might somehow have picked up a Japanese station on Earth.
"They also got some FM from both HD85 and HD28, but it was so broken up that they couldn’t be sure. They’re still working on it, playing with the parameter settings.
"One experiment they want to run is pointing a radio telescope at a “blank” area of the sky, to see if the new SSE picks up music when there’s nothing there, which would indicate that the SSE is somehow being contaminated from an Earth source. I think one possible target they’re going to try is in the Hubble Deep Field.”
“What about AM stations?” I asked.
Felix frowned and shook his head. “Any AM using the low frequency band we have here will probably be absorbed by their planet’s ionosphere, or bounce off; it can’t get out. Anyway, the lower frequencies lose a lot over the light-years. But the SSE group is trying all kinds of combinations of their settings. Maybe they’ll suddenly pick up Epsiloni political talk radio.” He grinned.
Well, I suppose it had to happen. The "Morse Code" messages are all fake. Just as Dr. Strauss had predicted, somebody had inserted the dot-dash make-and-breaks into the recorded radio signal. The tipoff was when one of Dr. Winston's students tried performing various transformations on the characters of "Tau Morse" text, which had been generated by assigning the most common code groups to English letters according to their frequency of appearance in English text.
They got a little surprise.
If the string of characters I reported earlier, "NSAXBUTPOADPNFAIFSFA," is shifted back one letter in the English alphabet, and 'A' is converted to a space between words, you get "MR WATSON COME HERE."
Whoops. That's the famous first message sent over Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in 1876.
This discovery immediately raised suspicions and set off an intensive investigation.
A Stanford student soon confessed to having interfered with the recording of the radio telescope data to insert the make-and-break pattern. Under threat of prosecution, he implicated a friend who had done the same thing at the Mauna Kea Observatory. With some information from the student in Hawaii, a message from HD 10180 was searched and a different famous message was found: "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT."
Very funny. OK, we all got fooled. We did not hear an ET Marconi or Morse trying out his telegraph key — not this time.
There has been some suspicion of the Cal student who originally suggested processing messages to look for dots and dashes, but he maintains that he was not involved in the data modification fraud. He says he might have gotten the idea to look for dots and dashes from someone who knows the guilty Stanford student.
Of course now everyone thinks the HD messages are probably fake too. So far, nobody has confessed. Study of the HD packets continues to be intense and still no give-away patterns have been found. Also, so far, no more packet-sending stars have turned up.
After this, the SSE researchers who might have picked up an FM station for Epsilon Eridani have become rather closed-mouthed. When Felix visited their lab recently, they told him not to talk about their results at all. This caution makes good sense. We don’t want people to automatically assume a joker is at work any time we pick up an interesting signal.
By the way, “What hath God wrought” was one of the first messages sent by land-based telegraph. On May 24, 1844, this message was sent from the US Capitol building to the Baltimore railroad station. Unlike SETI researchers, the recipients of the telegraph message probably knew what was coming.
When I arrived at the SETI Café today and sat down at a table, I realized that there was beautiful music on the speakers.
The tables were about half full, normal for mid-afternoon. Most of the customers were staring into space, as if in a trance.
At first, I thought Cosmo had decided to soothe his customers with some conventional classical music. It sounded like an orchestral piece, ut not one I recognized. The notes sounded like strings playing, and maybe a woodwind. There were plucks and also some drum-like thumps. It reminded me of a composition I’d heard in which a violin is alternately bowed, plucked and the instrument’s wooden body struck with a finger, but these sounds were all happening together. The plucks were sustained enough to be something like a harp or a guitar. There were occasional very short intervals of silence.
The music was beautiful, very melodic, with numerous interweaved themes. A cello-like bass line entered, giving harmony. I was listening intently, and so was everyone else in the café. This was quite unlike the usual ET Music. I looked around for Cosmo, and saw him standing near the door of his office, talking to Felix. I got up from my table and walked over to them.
“What is the source of this lovely music?” I inquired.
“We don’t know,” Felix replied. “It’s from the void.”
Cosmo was grinning broadly, much amused by my expression of mixed annoyance and confusion. Felix began an explanation.
“This is the result of a test case for the Statistical Signal Enhancement. Remember that they were going to listen to a “blank” area of sky, to see if the SSE would produce something spurious when exposed to low-level background noise. The radio telescope was pointed to a place close to the tiny area of the Hubble Deep Field, where optical maps show no bright stars and radio maps show just the hiss of Hydrogen and the cosmic microwave background.
“They ran the test with a fairly large number of different frequencies. For one of the frequencies, when they statistically enhanced the quiet background, a carrier wave appeared, with frequency modulation. It was FM audio. They de-modulated it, left the audio frequencies where they were, and recorded the result. You’re listening to it now.”
While Felix was talking to me, a small audience of somewhat dazed looking Café patrons collected around us. Cosmo addressed the attentive group. “Do any of you recognize this music? I know several of you are musicians. Of course, we’re wondering if this was picked up from some Earth-based FM station. The carrier frequency is close to one used by KDFC, our local classical station, but KDFC wasn’t broadcasting this music when the SSE test was run – or at any other time. I called the station and told them how to play it from the web. Nobody there recognized the music."
Someone spoke up. “I keep thinking I recognize it, but I’m just picking out an occasional familiar phrase.”
“It might be by Debussy, ” offered another patron. “It reminds me of the first part of ‘La Mer’, but it isn’t that.”
“Nah,” objected another. “It’s got to be something by Hovhaness. It’s not ‘Mysterious Mountain’ but it does sound similar – a melody in the strings with pluckings in the background. ”
Everyone else just looked puzzled, and kept listening to the music, awestruck, as one melodic line segued into another. Whoever composed this music, they’d sure done a great job. Bach or Beethoven would have been pleased with these cosmic musicians.
There was general agreement among the musicians that there were parts for at least 3 and perhaps 4 instruments, two strings and something else with a buzz in it which might have been a woodwind like an oboe or bassoon. And there was also that drum-line thunk. There was nothing that sounded like a brass instrument. The woodwind pitch would be sustained for a long period, like a bagpipe drone, then it would fade away, often to be replaced by the rise of a different pitch. The harmony was nice, but seemed strange to me, as if it were about to clash in discord, but never does. The drone tones came and went; sometimes there was no drone.
“I’ve heard those drones used in Irish music, to accompany singing,” said one of the musicians. “The singer pumps bellows on an instrument , and pushes a key when she wants to change the drone note. Maybe these ETs are wandering Irish minstrels?”
A different person spoke up. “I’ve heard something similar to this in music from the Caucasus, and in Arab music. I don’t think this is using Western rules of harmony. I’m not sure I’d know how to write a score for this. Some of the pitches may be between the ones we use in orchestral music.”
Felix smiled. “Well, if this is really coming from some far-off invisible star, the rules of music might very well be extraterrestrial. Hey, I’d be pleased if it turns out that music is universal enough to be appreciated many light-years distant from its source.”
One of the restaurant customers asked, “Have these guys tried the statistical enhancement thing on HD85 or Epsilon Eridani to see if those ETs are doing any music?”
Felix nodded. “Yes, they might have detected some music from Epsilon Eridani. By the way, they tried pointing the radio telescope to three other ‘blank’ spots in the sky, and got no signal, FM or otherwise. It would seem that they were quite lucky with that original blank spot.
“The SSE technique still needs some improvement. It’s too easy for the process to get overwhelmed with noise or distortion and then drop out of sync. There’s also something subtle going wrong with how the output is generated: sometimes it will go random for a while. It’s difficult to tell whether that’s just due to signal drop-out – too low power level. For this recording, they removed the parts that they thought were random noise, not music. It’s quite possible that they removed too much, like a voice either speaking or singing.”
He grinned. “I think there are more interesting things yet to come. The SSE people are still pointing at other stars and trying to pick up stuff like the HD85 packets.”
The music we were listening to became more complex. The person who spoke about writing a score spoke up again. “So far, I haven’t heard any recognizable solos. I don’t think there are ever fewer than three instruments playing together, each with a distinct part, including the drone. The drone tones shift to make good harmony with the current melody.”
I asked Felix if there was any way to tell how far away in the “void” was the source of the music transmissions.
“We can’t know a distance,” he replied, “until somebody matches the radio source with a visible astronomical object.”
Felix frowned and added, “Because of the Tau Morse hoax, there’s a lot of suspicion of fraud. Observers monitored the operation of the radio telescope and checked for any way for local music to get mixed with the received signal. Everything looked OK. For a while, there was no more lovely music received, but then a new piece came in, right during the time that observers were on-site, watching telescope operations. Music from the void does seem to be real.”
Someone asked “Why do the ETs broadcast only music on their FM stations? Why don’t we get an Announcer’s voice between musical selections?”
“Good point,” replied Felix, “for some reason, all we’ve picked up is the music. It may be that there’s some voice from the void. Every so often the music is interrupted with some kind of interference: hums, clicks, booms and buzzes which could be a voice.”
Felix paused for a moment to think, then added “Keep in mind the possibility that the music might not really be ET symphonic music broadcasts. Even if we’re actually hearing radio station leakage from an ET civilization way out there, we might be reading our own biases into what we hear. The problem might be worse if we pick up voice, especially a singer. It might be difficult to distinguish speech from singing, or from music in general.”
When I put in my usual order for Epsilon Eridani Salad, I asked Abner if he was going to put a “music from the void” dish on the menu. Rather grumpily he replied that the music from the void probably wasn’t extraterrestrial, or if it was, it didn’t come from a definite place like a planet. He grinned then and added, “I’m waiting for Starman to channel an ET from the void music and then ask the ET to tell us its favorite food.”
After securing the music from the void, the SSE was fed some 1420 Mhz received from the celestial coordinates where the “Wow!” signal came from. They got plenty of hiss from Hydrogen all over the target area, but no sharp peak anywhere, at any time. Also, there was no modulation with music or voice. Whatever made the “Wow!” signal does not seem to be active these days.
When Dr. Winston told me that the SSE group had tried the “Wow!” coordinates, he added his opinion that Jerry Ehman got it right the first time when he suspected that the “Wow!” signal was the result of a temporary reflection from a piece of orbital debris. “Maybe it was a large debris chunk, fortuitously shaped like a microwave reflector so that it briefly concentrated the 1420 MHz background to produce the sharp peak. In any case, I strongly doubt that the ‘Wow!’ signal had anything to do with an ET.”
The SSE has brought in a signal from the star 61 Cygni, a binary system, 11.4 light-years distant, in the northern constellation Cygnus the swan; it’s dim, just barely visible with the naked eye. It is not too far in the sky from the well-known bright star Deneb.
Fortuitously, Cosmo was just about to add an item inspired by 61 Cygni to the Café menu. Here it is:
A spicy loaf made from soy “meat” and chopped peppers and onions.
Inspired by the fast-spinning high-gravity planet Mesklin, said to orbit the star 61 Cygni in Hal Clement's science fiction novel “Mission of Gravity.” Also, in the Star Trek universe, 61 Cygni is the home of the Tellarite race. 61 Cygni is a binary star system, 11.4 light-years distant, in the northern constellation Cygnus the swan; it’s dim, just barely visible with the naked eye. It is quite close in the sky to the well-known bright star Deneb. The 61 Cygni stars are both orange-red,, somewhat smaller and cooler than the Sun. At the moment no planets have been detected in orbit about either star.
Right, 61 Cygni consists of two orange-red K-type dwarfs, both about 7/10 of the Sun’s mass and half its radius. The two stars orbit each other far apart, with a mean separation of about double the distance between Pluto and the Sun. The period of the orbit is over 600 years. The stars are far enough apart that they could both have planets.
As a unit, this star pair has a high proper motion, which means that the rate of movement of the star pair within the galaxy results in a large apparent shift of the visible object on Earth’s sky, per year. Because the astronomer Piazzi discovered the motion, 61 Cygni has been called Piazzi's Flying Star.
No planets have been detected, but something is making that radio signal. It could be leakage from local radio on an undetected Earth-like planet – circling either star. The system is somewhat older than our Sun.
The 61 Cygni signal might be a news or talk station. It’s mostly voice, with intervals of music less than a minute long. The Cygni voice sounds like some kind of language. The Cygni music is simple, just one instrument, which could be a flute or an oboe, playing a rather random melody. It isn’t bad, but I think it is rather boring.
The SSE folks worked very hard, re-tuning their equipment to best process the 61 Cygni voice and music, and tuning the SSE parameters in a way which might especially enhance voice. Recently, they were successful, bringing out clearly what may be the voice of the announcer for the radio program. It definitely sounds like somebody talking, but not with a human voice, let alone a human language.
Several sequences of Cygni voice have been processed and filtered to produce a continuous voice audio, which we call the “Cygni Announcer.” This combined sequence is now available on the SETI Café website. Each segment begins with about 15 seconds of Cygni music.
Cosmo, Felix and I have done a lot of listening to the Cygni Announcer. We agree that the voice could have been produced by something like vocal cords and body structures like tongue or lips. We heard vowels and consonants. There was a particularly startling high-pitched [peep!] which a human might produce when startled – or it’s a very short whistle.
Felix again cautioned against letting our human biases make us hear things that aren’t there. We might not be actually hearing a voice. But it sure does sound like somebody talking in a totally unknown language.
There are pauses in it. But the timbre of the voice always sounds the same, as if the Cygni ETs had only the one announcer. Felix suggests that we may not be able to distinguish a change of speakers, because they all talk the same way. It’s also possible that the voice is artificial, mechanically generated.
I could get no meaning from the voice. Neither could anyone else at the café. The linguistics research group at the University is running some analysis tools on the audio, trying to generate some statistics to compare the ET voice with voices speaking Earth-based languages. The group agrees that all the sounds in the Cygni voice are probably within the capability of human speech equipment. This has raised a lot of suspicion that the voice is indeed a human, putting on an act.
Several Chinese speakers have listened to the voice and concluded that the Cygni language probably does not feature tones, like those of Mandarin or Cantonese. It’s possible that tones were somehow filtered out when the bursts were processed. There is definitely syllable stress; this Cygni language isn’t monotone like Japanese.
The SSE is getting better and better. A voice from another ET radio station has been picked up. This time, it looks like the source is good old reliable Epsilon Eridani, the sun-like star 10 light-years distant, which is known to have at least one orbiting planet, and possibly some rather tasty salad.
We had already gotten music from Epsilon Eridani, featuring the twangy Japanese shamisen. But now a voice has been extracted too. Of course nobody understands the language. The linguists tell us that it is not at all like an Earth language. No surprise. As with 61 Cygni, all the vocal sounds could be produced by our human speech equipment, so in principle, we could learn to speak the Epsiloni ET language and they could learn to speak English. Suspicion of fraud was raised when one broadcast from Epsilon Eridani surprisingly included a section in recognizable Spanish — a human, Hispanic voice; it did not have the timbre of the ET voice. It was identified as part of a religious program broadcast by “Radio Santa Rosa,” a strong shortwave station located in Lima, Peru. A quick check determined that the broadcast picked up was not recent, and thus unlikely to have contaminated a radio telescope. The Peruvian station started broadcasting in 1958. From internal evidence, the Spanish language program we heard probably was broadcast from Peru about 20 years ago. The ET language part of what we received now might well be a report about how the Epsiloni ETs picked up a radio transmission from Earth. Twenty years would be about right for a round trip. Evidently the SSE developed by the Epsilonis does a better job on low frequency AM than ours does, or maybe Radio Santa Rosa came through to Epsilon Eridani especially loud for a while, for some reason.. The linguistics group is now studying the ET language part of the audio to see if there are any references to the Spanish, which might give some clues for understanding the ET language.
This initial experience in ET language research highlighted what is now called the “common object” issue. There is no way to understand a foreign language unless there are common objects referred to in both the foreign language and something you know – a language or even just a labeled set of pictures.
In the past, when commercial traders traveling to distant parts of Earth encountered a new group of customers speaking a strange language, the traders worked out a trade language by getting the words for trade goods and other objects which both trader and customers could use their languages to describe. In too many of our ET language situations, all we have is the ET language, with no common objects. The repeat of the Spanish broadcast (if that is not another practical joke) could provide common objects if the linguists can identify items in the ET language which refer to things in the Spanish language.
Hoping to capture yet another ET language, the SSE was fed signals from Tau Ceti, now purged of spurious dots and dashes. They did not find any music or voice – just some noise that one scientist characterized as random stellar flares. They also tried HD10, once the equally fraudulent “Morse from Another Source.” No luck there either.
The news media never made much of the Morse Code fraud. It was mentioned briefly in a few short articles – no big headlines. I think they were disappointed. The whole ET Marconi story just wasn’t sensational enough. Maybe some reporters were hoping for a startling translation of Tau Text. So Tau Morse quickly dropped off the news.
The Spanish language from Epsilon Eridani was much more interesting. It was big news in the Spanish language press, and some evangelical Christian churches were excited too.
The Spanish language press calmed down quickly when it became clear that the Epsiloni ETs themselves were not actually speaking Spanish. Here is an article that was originally published in an English-language missionary magazine, which is in some way affiliated with Radio Santa Rosa:
God Reaches Out to the Stars
Christian radio has been received by intelligent beings more than 10 light-years away, on the planet Epsilon Eridani. An evangelical outreach radio program, broadcast 20 years ago by religious Radio Santa Rosa in Peru has escaped Earth and traveled all that distance. The Eridani beings have signaled that they received the broadcast by repeating some of it back to Earth. The rest of their return broadcast was in the Eridani language, which nobody on Earth understands. Perhaps God intends to teach the Eridanians some Spanish, or maybe God will enable somebody on Earth to learn Eridanian.
What an amazing new missionary field! Several churches are putting together radio programs especially for Epsilon Eridani. They will soon be broadcast from Peru and hopefully will arrive at their stellar destination 10 years from now. Maybe the next thing we will hear from the Eridanians will be their testimony about finding Jesus.
These missionary folks might want to compare notes with the Mormons, who tell us that Jesus visited North America for a while. I suppose if anyone could get to Epsilon Eridani by going faster than light, it would be Jesus.
A small team of amateur researchers (Starman, Cosmo, Abner and I) have attempted to transcribe the Cygni Announcer and produce a phonetic written script. We amateurs played a 1-minute section of Cygni Announcer again and again, slowing it down and speeding it up, in an attempt to write down what it is saying, using consistent notation.
We couldn’t agree on what we had heard, so we made some reasonable compromises. Here is a short segment of what we produced:
dNookh dookh valLA [peep!] gsdsa’a psu [peep!] dnehk nnNNOOG [peep!] ala [peep!] uahka dookhk
Starman translates this (based on I’m not sure what) as “Listen people, the ETs are talking to you.”
I showed this transcription effort to someone in the linguistics group. I was gently told that our transcription was too crude, that the linguists have better ways to do the job.
Starman has made an interesting claim. He has been fascinated with the music from 61 Cygni. He listens to it for hours on end. After a few days of this, he began to have an experience of vague images in his mind, like those reported by the people who first listened to the original ET Music. He began to get strange ideas, almost like memories, as if he were recalling stories somebody had told him long ago.
He began to listen to Cygni music and voice together. After a while, he thought he could understand what the Cygni voice was saying.
Starman said he felt like a partial zombie – as if an extraterrestrial personality had invaded his mind and was guiding him in interpreting the voice of the Cygni Announcer. Starman convinced several friends to listen to the music and try to repeat his experience, and soon there were four other zombies all giving translations of what the Cygni Announcer was saying. The zombies don’t claim to be doing a proper translation, but rather a paraphrase or summary of what was said.
I tried using the music to train my mind, but the Cygni Announcer still made no sense to me. I guess I don’t provide a good home for an ET personality. Or maybe I didn’t listen to the training music for long enough.
I asked Starman to explain what he thought was going on.
“I think the music is modifying my mind,” he began. “I think that's why the ETs are sending the music. The music somehow sets up my neural circuitry so my mind is receptive to learning the ET spoken language.”
“The Cygni Announcer makes sense to you now?” I asked.
“Well, sort of,” he replied, “I haven’t learned to understand the ET language the way I understand English, or even like the way I partially understand Spanish. Maybe I would achieve that after a while. I just get a vague sense of what is being said. I may recognize a few words or phrases, but mostly I just come away with a feeling that I know the intent of the voice.”
“What is the intent?” I inquired.
“It might be some kind of religious sermon,” Starman said. “It says the music just played was produced by the performers as part of a ritual to promote cooperation, learning from one another. The idea is to reduce tension and increase appreciation for what we have in common as well as ways groups of people can form a larger more capable whole person. We’re being told that we need to cooperate, help each other, to learn from one another.”
At this point, several of the other zombies were listening to our conversation. They all agreed that Starman’s summary was the substance of what was said. Starman looked a little embarrassed. He asked me, “Please don’t report this as revelation from Cygni. I’m afraid the café will fill up with religious fanatics. I want to make it clear that we are not hearing an actual sermon. We just get the feeling that this is what the voice is saying.”
I said “You mentioned being able to understand a few words. What’s an example?”
Starman picked up a copy of the Cygni Announcer transcription we’d produced. He said, “I think the word that sounds like ‘nnNNOOG[peep!]’ might be the Cygni word for ‘help’. Another sound ‘dookh’ might mean something like ‘you’ or ‘people’. We hear ‘dookh’ a lot.”
“I can’t say we know enough words to string together to make sentences. We’re just guessing about ‘nnNNOOG[peep!]’ and ‘dookh’ because we hear these words when we get the idea that the Announcer is saying something like “you should help other people.”
While I was talking to the zombie group, Felix arrived, pulled out a chair for himself, and addressed the group to report his experiences. “I saturated myself with the 61 Cygni music,” he said. “Then I played the Cygni voice, and I generally agree with what Starman and the other guys tell us is being said. But this was after I’d talked with them and heard their impressions.
“There’s another possibility. Both the music and the voice may somehow be evoking such thoughts and ideas in our minds, so that we think the voice is actually saying this stuff. My point is that we might not be dealing with language in the same sense as English, but we’re still experiencing communication. I definitely like the idea that the music is being deliberately sent to train our brains.”
“You think both music and voice are aimed at us?” I asked.
Felix shook his head slowly. “I doubt that,” he said. “I think it’s much more likely that we are the fortuitous recipients of leakage from an especially powerful broadcast transmitter, designed to give wide coverage on the Cygni planet, with an unintended side-effect of sometimes generating a narrow beam pointed our way — something like those religious short wave radio stations which take advantage of ionospheric bounce late at night to get wide geographical coverage. It’s probably a broadcast intended for local consumption on the ET’s home planet. The music might be intended to facilitate religious emotion among the locals, and to some degree it works on us Earthlings as well.”
“Excuse me.” An intense looking young man came over to our table and introduced himself. “My name is Paul Graham, pastor of the Berkeley Christian Church. Did you say the ETs are sending religious broadcasts?” We all must have looked uncomfortable. Starman answered his question. “Maybe, we’re not sure. We think we might have heard something inspiring from an ET, which could be a sermon.”
“Could I listen?” Paul asked.
Starman handed over his earphones, and gave Paul a quick summary about the Cygni Announcer and the idea that the Cygni music teaches our brains how to comprehend the words. He let Paul listen to the Cygni music for a while, then played some of the Cygni Announcer. Paul listened intently for a few minutes, then took off the earphones and handed them back to Starman. “The music was kind of like singing,” he said. “The other stuff might have been words, but I sure couldn’t get any sermon out of it.” He grinned and we all chuckled.
Starman suggested that Paul listen to the music for a long while, at least an hour, then try the words again. He explained how to access the website for Cygni data and find cleaned-up recordings of both the music and the voice. Paul thanked us and said that he would go home and try listening on his own computer.
I was a little worried about Paul the preacher. I could see some possibility that he, or members of his congregation, might get the idea that there was divine revelation to be heard from 61 Cygni. Felix is probably right that, with or without the music, a person is likely to hear what they want to hear in the voice.
After Paul had left the Café, Starman told me about having a conversation with a Mormon (Latter Day Saint), who said his Church was not surprised that we were hearing from all these ETs.
The Earth's creation, according to Mormon scripture, was out of existing matter. The Mormons say that this earth is just one of many inhabited worlds, and that there are many governing heavenly bodies, including a planet or star “Kolob” which is said to be nearest the throne of God.
God the Father himself once passed through mortality like Jesus did. The prevailing view among Mormons is that God once lived on a planet with his own higher god.
Well, it looks like there’s plenty of room out there for all this.
My favorite ET music has always been MV -- “Music from the Void.” It is so beautiful, and there is no voice in it.
I recorded one especially affecting MV piece, lasting about 12 minutes. I then played it for myself, at home, several times. The result was strange and interesting.
I essentially fell asleep and had a vivid dream, of floating among brilliantly lit clouds. I wasn’t quite asleep. It was more like meditation, a vision.
I had some difficulty re-connecting to reality after the music ended. I almost didn’t want to come back. The experience was so absorbing and almost thrilling. I emerged feeling refreshed and upbeat. After about a minute with no MV music, I returned to normal awareness.
The experience was a little frightening. If the MV recording had been on a continuous loop, I don’t think I would have been able to shut it off. Is some ET sending us a kind of opium?
The next day, I went to the SETI Café with the intention of comparing notes with Starman, Cosmo or anyone else who might have had my experience.
When I arrived, a disturbance was going on. A middle-aged woman was yelling at a young man who was sitting at a table, staring vacantly, with tears running down his face. The woman had pulled his earphones off and was waving them in front of his face. “Wake up!” she kept shouting. As I approached the table, the young man began to stir, emerging from his reverie. He shook his head, rubbed his eyes and said “I’m OK, Mom.” His mother grabbed some paper towels and began to wipe off his face. The young man was smiling.
“I’m OK, OK.” he repeated. “Oh, that was so beautiful.”
I blurted out, “What were you doing? Were you listening to Music from the Void?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “How did you know?”
His mother grabbed my arm, and demanded of me, Do you know what Jim was listening to? Was it ET music? Jim was just sitting here, plugged into his computer, lost to the world. We just live down the street. Cosmo called me when Jim began to cry and they couldn’t snap him out of his trance.”
Jim, now mostly restored to reality and emotional stability, began to explain.
“Yes, I was playing one of the “Music from the Void” selections. It was really beautiful. I kept starting it again and again. I guess I fell asleep and had a dream. I met the spirit of my little brother Eddie. We were floating up in the sky, surrounded by bright clouds. Eddie looked so happy.”
Jim’s mother broke in to tell the gathered crowd, “Eddie died last year. He drowned when he hit his head while diving. Jim and Eddie were very close. What music was it that affected him so deeply?”
Cosmo and some of the others explained about the MV source and how it was obtained.
Jim said, “I never was affected like that before, but I guess I never kept playing that music so many times before.”
I announced loudly: “I recently had a similar experience.”
I told the group about my dream of floating in the clouds. “For me, the experience was all beauty, like a great vision. I didn’t encounter any spirits, but I do remember seeing numerous blobs of light going in and out of the clouds.”
“I gotta try this!” That was Starman. “Which selection did you play?” He looked at me, then at Jim.
“You know, I might have gone through the same thing.” This was Frank, one of the Café regulars. “For me, it was like dreaming of encountering great people of the past, like Gutenberg, Copernicus, Michaelangelo. It happened late at night. I must have fallen asleep while the MV was playing. My dream was very vivid.”
Cosmo looked alarmed. “Whoa, guys!” he said. “We might have found something dangerous about ET music.. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“OK,” said Starman with a grin, “I’ll try looping myself with some MV. Somebody get ready to pull the plug, or at least take my earphones off. Say, Cosmo, didn’t you play the MV for quite a while on the speaker system that first day? Did any customers zonk out?”
Cosmo replied, hesitantly at first, then quickly, “I don’t remember any problems. Some people got kind of dreamy-eyed. Nobody cried. Nobody had to be slapped back to reality.” He shrugged.
“I’m going to try this,” Starman declared. “Jim, show me what file you were playing.”
Jim showed him, then Starman asked two customers to sit by him, one to run the music, the other to pull off his earphones. The audience had expectant, apprehensive looks. Cosmo did not look pleased, but he didn’t interfere. Neither did I.
“This is nice stuff,” Starman said as the music began. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “I’m not getting any visions yet, just a feeling of peace. Ahhhh… Hey! You need to keep clicking to keep the music going.”
His assistant/protector clicked again, and again …. Starman relaxed.
“No visions… uh … wow!” He fell silent. His other assistant was about to grab his earphones, but Starman waved him off. “Gosh, this is beautiful…. Give me about 5 minutes more, then shut it off.”
Everyone waited. Starman looked relaxed and happy. The first assistant stopped clicking for more music. About two minutes later, Starman opened his eyes, shook his shaggy locks and gave his audience a big grin. We all relaxed. Cosmo put his phone back down.
“Better than Weed, man. Better than LSD, even… Cosmo, don’t look at me like that, it’s really not that far out; just nice. The Feds aren’t going to come raid your restaurant.”
“What did you see?” I finally asked.
Starman described his vision. “It was like being out in space. Everything was black, with stars twinkling here and there. I could see a big round ball below me, a planet covered with clouds. The sun was behind me, I suppose; the clouds were brightly lit. As I watched, two moons set behind the planet, one after another. I was having fun.”
“I asked, “Did you have any emotional reaction?”
“Well, happiness, I suppose. I didn’t cry, did I? Hey, I’d do this again, but maybe it would be a good idea to have someone with me, or an automatic shutoff of the music.”
I definitely agreed with those precautions.
Intense discussion then began among the Café customers, everyone offering ideas about what had really happened, and how the music had caused it to happen. Nothing was agreed.
I got together with Cosmo and Felix to talk about what should be done. Felix said he knew a psychologist up on Campus. We agreed to give him a call the next day.
Work continues on sources of music and voice from 61 Cygni and Epsilon Eridani.
It’s been hard to get much of a start on translating the languages because there’s no English language version of any of these ET language broadcasts. The Spanish from Epsilon Eridani could be something like a Rosetta Stone, if the linguists can ever find parts of the Epsiloni ET language that are talking about the Spanish. Of course, the Epsiloni ETs probably were just as clueless about how to translate Spanish as we are about their language.
In both ET sources, it’s not even clear that we’re really hearing music or voice. Maybe half of those who have let the music train their minds agree that the voice is really saying something. Felix remains convinced that we are not hearing a voice speaking at all, but rather that it’s all more like music.
Now, there’s something new to study. A new ET source has been found.
I heard about it yesterday at the SETI café.
“Listen to this.” A café patron offered me his earphones. I heard what sounded like the chirps from a flock of birds. Every now and then there would be a quick buzz like a cricket, followed by longer rapid twittering. These buzz-twitter sequences would repeat several times; they sounded about the same each time. It was a lot like bird calls. There would be a gap, then another buzz-twitter would start and repeat. There was seldom any silence; the gaps were filled with other chirps.
“Is this coming from a star?” I asked. “Yeah, from Gleezuh,” was the reply. I looked puzzled. “What?”
Cosmo came over to our table. He explained. “He’s listening to Gliese 876. It’s been very popular recently. You’re hearing the chirping birds, right?” I nodded agreement. Cosmo pulled a note card from his shirt pocket. “Arthur gave me some information on this one.” He read from the card: “Gliese 876 is a red dwarf star about 15 light-years distant. There appear to be four large planets orbiting the star. Two of the middle planets are similar to Jupiter, while the closest-in planet is thought to be similar to a small Neptune or a large terrestrial planet. The outer planet has mass similar to that of Uranus. The orbits of all but the closest planet are locked in a rare three-body Laplace resonance.”
“Resonance?” I inquired.
“Yeah," Cosmo replied. "Arthur says that means the orbital periods of three planets are related by a simple ratio. He says Jupiter's moons Ganymede, Europa and Io are in a 1:2:4 orbital resonance. That means for every 4 orbits Io makes around Jupiter, Europa makes exactly 2 orbits and Ganymede makes exactly one.
Gliese 876 planets E, B and C have orbits in that same ratio.” He consulted the card again. That’s periods of 30, 61.1 and 124.3 days.”
“So what lives there, birds?” I asked.
Cosmo grinned briefly. "Probably not birds like we know on Earth. Those are all big planets, in the class of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. They don’t seem very Earth-like.”
Another customer came over to our table, attracted by our conversation. He inquired “Did you notice the long calls?” I looked blank again. Cosmo explained: “He means that some of the chirps form an extended sequence, like a bird call."
I listened, and yes, many of the chirps are not just one sound, but a short rapid sequence of many different rapid sounds.
Then I did some asking around. No, the ETs of Gliese 876 are not twittering birds.
Once again, the audio is the artificial result of processing the radio signal. Short high-frequency bursts are filtered out from the background and the frequency shifted down into the audio range. The radio bursts are probably coming from lightning strokes in the atmosphere of these gas giant planets. Scientists studying Jupiter have picked up similar signals.
The SSE people have processed a wide range of burst strengths from Gliese 876 to make audio. The surprising result was the bird chirps.
The Gliese 876 bird songs have received the short designation "G87."
It seems that the astronomical designations of the source stars are too cumbersome and sometimes difficult to pronounce, so when an interesting new source is discovered, it's important to give it a short and simple name.
I wondered why they didn't just call it something like "Gliese Birds."
I asked Felix about this, and got a short lecture about the dangers of anticipatory naming in science. He cited the detection of "sprites," which are brief flashes seen above thunderstorms on Earth. The scientist heading one of the first research groups to study this phenomenon didn't want to give it a name which might predispose people to think the physics was understood, such as "electromagnetic surge," so he picked the fanciful name "sprite" because some of the pictures looked like a fairy dancing in the upper atmosphere. Another kind of sprite was designated "elf." These names have stuck and are now used routinely in scientific papers. Felix said that sprites have still not been completely explained, even though at least one satellite has been launched to study sprites from above.
More of the G87 chirps have been received and made available for study. The software was provisionally modified to let more radio bursts through, not reject them as noise, but the result was wild cacophony, and there was no longer any suggestion of any packet pattern. More software experimentation finally settled on a range of burst strengths and frequency shifts to produce a result which sounds a lot like birds calling to each other in a forest. Every now and then the buzz-twitters come through — the possible packets.
Starman thinks that the buzz-twitters are birds in the middle of their mating season.
An interesting observation has been made: the peaks of frequency and intensity of the chirps appears to follow the periods of the three big planets. This could mean that all three of the gas giants are inhabited by similar radio-signaling ETs, and maybe there is interplanetary chirp chit-chat within the Gliese 876 system.
In what is certainly good practice these days, the chirps are being checked for fraud. Visitors have observed how the signals are collected and processed. The software has also received an independent review. So far, nothing suspicious has been found. The noise bursts are definitely there and the processing is honest and consistent. And there is indeed periodicity related to the resonant orbits of the three big planets.
A good number of the SETI café patrons have been regularly listening to what they persist in calling G87 bird songs, but so far, nobody has claimed to have channeled ET thoughts from them.
A biologist I talked to at the café is convinced that we are hearing some kind of communication. She pointed out that bird calls on Earth signal simple things like "I am here, and of this species." "I'm looking for a mate." "There are predators in the vicinity." Howler monkeys are thought to use similar signaling. So the G87 stuff may not be coming from ET intelligent beings, but rather from ET life at the level of birds or monkeys.
Felix tells me that he knows some people who have been involved with a project to find messages in whale songs. One of these people listened to some G87 chirps, and after hearing that the chirps were originally bursts at radio frequencies, suggested that G87 planets may harbor huge creatures capable of generating pulses like an electric eel, and with enough energy to produce the radio bursts. It turns out that when the moans and grunts of the songs of the humpback whales are speeded up, they sound a lot like bird chirps. Maybe someone will slow down the G87 chirps and have whale researchers listen to the result.
Dr. Winston has contacted some astronomy researchers, who are studying radio emissions from Jupiter and suggested that they try our chirp processing on some of their data.
The news media have been following the ET message saga, but only off and on. I guess they don’t want to bore their readers with too much technical detail.
The G87 messages got almost no coverage at all. Maybe those planets are too remote.
The local newspaper did print a story mentioning G87, likening its planets to Jupiter. They did a some nice interviews with a few biologists and wrote some good stuff about whale songs.
Then I think their reporter must have called Dr. Strauss and got turned off from pursuing the chirps story any further. I had previously determined that Dr. Strauss thinks people are reading far too much into the burst noises from big planets. “There’s lots of lightning in those gas giant atmospheres,” he told me. “Updrafts and other winds, some rather violent, are going on all the time. This generates electric discharges. He said that there’s no need to bring in beasts to do it, especially not intelligent beasts.”
Felix, Cosmo, Starman and I finally paid a visit to Felix’s psychologist friend George Wells. George had heard about the ET messages, but not so much about MV. We explained that MV had no evident source, but is amazingly beautiful music.
I could see that George was thinking that the MV was going to turn out to be from Earth. But he became very interested when we described the unusual reactions some of us had after listening to large amounts of MV. We played a little for him. He was impressed.
I wondered if George was going to do a supervised trial on himself, especially after hearing about Starman's experiment. But George said he wanted to think about the problem, and check the literature. He did say that this kind of vision experience had been reported by other people who listened to other kinds of music. There is music is available online to facilitate meditation. Any music can provoke an intense emotional reaction in some people, if it somehow activates buried memories.
George said he would set up a controlled experiment. A group of test subjects would be selected. Each person would listen to the same MV music for the same amount of time, then each person would describe his impression in written form before talking to anyone else.
George would then repeat the experiment, with a different MV selection, and see how consistent the responses were.
When I arrived at the SETI café today, Dr. Winston was sitting at a table, holding forth to the lunch crowd. Everyone in the restaurant was listening intently. He was summarizing his recent communications with the Jupiter researchers.
Behind him, on the wall, was a new large poster showing the swirls, bands and up-wellings of the atmosphere of Jupiter. Just left of center, above a white band, a little ball was visible, suspended above the cloud tops; this was the satellite Io, famous for its volcanism. The orange lava fields were barely noticeable at this scale. Io is about the size of our own moon, maybe a little larger.
Huge Jupiter, in the background, looked like a vast banded wall.
Starman saw me and beckoned me to sit at his table. G87 was playing on the loudspeakers, but Cosmo had turned the volume way down.
"These guys listen to radio emissions from Jupiter," Dr. Winston was saying. “The longer bursts are caused by charged particles spiraling in Jupiter’s strong magnetic field. Shorter bursts appear to be the result of lightning strokes in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
“The atmosphere of Jupiter is very active. Jupiter gets energy from the Sun, but the big planet also has internal energy sources. There are a lot of storms. There's a lot of violent upwelling – just the kind of thing that produces lightning in the atmosphere of Earth.
“Some of the swirls in that picture...” He gestured at the image of Jupiter and Io behind him. “… are larger than the Earth. Jupiter is an awesomely huge world.”
Dr. Winston continued reporting the work of the Jupiter researchers. “At my suggestion, they have processed some of their data to produce audio chirps, as has been done with the G87 data."
"Their chirps are close to the same kind of thing we get from G87. It isn't exactly the same, but it's close. Listen to some of it."
He nodded to Cosmo, who got up and went to the computer in his office. In a few moments, the Jupiter sounds could be heard on the loudspeakers. At first, it sounded like the G87 birds, but the Jupiter birds sang in a denser chorus, as if there were many more voices. There were some long sequences in it, but nothing like the buzz-twitter from G87."
Felix remarked, “This sounds like birds calling to each other in the forest." He turned to Dr. Winston and asked: "Are they using our G87 burst selection criteria?"
"Pretty much," Dr. Winston replied. "They accept lower intensity bursts, I'm told. This may be what gives the impression of a larger flock. They assure me that the chirps are all caused by electrical discharges."
I asked Dr. Winston, “Are your friends sure that the radio bursts were coming from Jupiter itself or could it be from one of its moons?”
“Reasonably sure,” he replied. “The signals do not appear to be blanked out when any one of the larger moons goes behind the planet.
“There's another difference between G87 and Jupiter,” he added. “The G87 data is not continuous; there are gaps in it, of many hours. Jupiter seems to be generating its chirps almost all the time, with only short gaps.”
Starman raised his hand. "I realize the chirps and twittering we hear are produced by lowering the frequency of radio bursts. Is there any possibility that we are hearing some life form flying around in a planet's atmosphere, chirping at radio wavelengths, perhaps by making electrical sparks? Electric eels can make electricity. Bats use high-frequency sound. Whales make low-frequency calls."
Dr. Winston smiled and replied "Sure, it's possible. The atmosphere of a gas giant is very different from that of planets like Earth. You know, Carl Sagan once speculated that gas-bag life forms might be floating around in the atmosphere of Jupiter. I can imagine something like Jovian Whales, that have evolved to use electric sparks to generate radio calls, like Earth's whales do with sound."
Most of the audience was enthralled by this notion. Songs of the Jovian Whales – wow! Dr. Winston cautioned against jumping to conclusions. He pointed out that lightning strokes generate a broad band of signals. We could be hearing something very natural, from both Jupiter and G87.
“Here’s another interesting thing,” continued Dr. Winston. “Somebody pointed out that if recordings of whale songs are speeded up, they sound like birds chirping. So we tried slowing down our chirps, to see if we could turn a bird into a whale. It works. It’s not clear how important this is. The website will soon have audio files for slowed-down chirps from both Jupiter and G87, along with excerpts from songs of the humpbacked whales for comparison. You can draw your own conclusions.”
Starman really likes the idea of gigantic gas bag whales, crackling their electric calls in the atmosphere of giant planets. He thinks that life might actually be more common on gas giant worlds than on rocky Earth-like planets. Life might swarm in the thick roiling atmospheres like fish do in the currents of Earth's oceans. The exoplanet searches sure do turn up a lot of Jupiter-sized planets, because their size and mass make them relatively easy to detect.
Starman and two of his friends are talking up the idea that tribes of intelligent gas bags are talking to one another over long distances like whales do on Earth.
Starman wants the SETI people to break down the chirps into more detail, so we can get some idea of the form of the Jovian Whale language. He thinks the short gaps we get in the Jupiter data are the result of receiving calls from different populations of Jovian Whales over the almost 10 hours it takes for Jupiter to complete one rotation.
The group studying G87 has assigned a subcommittee to compare their results with those from Jupiter. While the G87 and Jupiter chirps are very similar, there are a lot of small differences. The frequencies are not the same. The duration of calls are not the same. Felix says that the long gaps in G87 are probably caused by the changing alignment of the gravitational lens between Gliese 876 and Earth.
I can visualize whales roaming Earth’s oceans, using an evolved language which enables them to coordinate migration and operate a social system. I can believe that some of the songs of the humpbacked whales are recitations of traditional tales. The Jovian Whales may well do something similar.
Given that we have achieved only a very sketchy understanding of the conversations among whales or dolphins, I see little prospect of understanding conversations among beings like Jovian Whales, floating in the air of far-away exoplanets.
There has been much past speculation that there might be life in the atmosphere of Jupiter, or of other gas giant planets. It might be ammonia-based life. The possibility of "abundant biota" in the upper regions of Jupiter's atmosphere was considered in a 1976 paper by Carl Sagan and Edwin E. Salpeter. They compared the ecology of the Jovian atmosphere with that of terrestrial seas which have simple photosynthetic plankton at the top level, fish at lower levels feeding on these creatures, and marine predators which hunt the fish. They envisaged creatures like giant gas-bags that move by pumping out helium and calculated that some of them might grow to be many kilometers across, which might make them visible from space.
Jovian aerial life-forms like those described by Sagan and Salpeter are portrayed in Arthur C. Clarke's short story "A Meeting with Medusa" (in the collection “The Wind From the Sun”).
Cosmo has put up a new poster on the wall at SETI Café. It shows an artist’s notion of Jovian Whales. They look like stubby blimps, with huge eyes on top and small fins to the side and rear of their body. Several are shown floating above yellowish roiling Jovian clouds. In front of the body, just below the eyes, is a gaping mouth, presumably used for inhaling the Jovian analogue of krill.
I’ve now done a lot of reading about animal communications.
Here on Earth, some animals can use sound signals to coordinate action and pass information. Humpbacked Whales, in particular, sing songs which are heard over vast distances in the oceans.
Only we humans have a language well-developed enough for detailed transmission of tradition, publishing news and writing science fiction stories. Other animals have language capability, but their complexity of communication is of a far lower order. Birds and whales can tell other members of their species where they are and perhaps what they’re up to.
As far as we know, only humans have a writing system – unless we’ve failed to recognize some natural markings on rocks or trees as the written record left by some animal. I suppose the scent markings trailed by ants aren’t quite writing, nor are the scents left by dogs on trees and light poles, though these writings are clearly being read by the species that wrote them.
Some of the accounts I’ve read suggest that whales and dolphins are calling to each other. An individual dolphin has a “signature whistle”, which serves as his name. Other whistles may be used to enhance dolphin group cohesion. I got the idea that Earth’s cetaceans – whales, dolphins and such, relate to us humans in a similar way to what we’re getting from the ET messages and music. But we do not, so far, have the ability to produce a translation of dolphin chatter or whale arias. Dolphins, suitably motivated, might have the ability to learn to speak a human language. One experimenter got a dolphin to ask for a ball to play with by producing the sound “bawww.” He even could call the experimenter, whose name was Margaret, by making the sound “Maaahwgwit.”
Some types of dinosaurs may have had voices and could call to each other across Cretaceous canyons. The fossil skull of a Parasaurolophus has a bony tubular crest that extends back from the top of its head. The crest is shaped like a trombone; it might have been used to produce distinctive sounds, probably low rumbles which change in pitch.
We already know that human beings use over 6000 languages, and that some of them are very different from English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese or Japanese. Some of the very different ones are spoken in North America — Cree, Navajo and Nahuatl.
Starman and some others are sure that the chirps from G87 and Jupiter, the voices from Epsilion Eridani and 61 Cygni and even the famous MV Music from the Void are all just as complete language systems as American English. If we were living as gas bag entities communicating by crackling lightning high in the big atmosphere of Jupiter, that crackle language would be easy to understand and American English would be incomprehensible gibberish.
Some linguists think that speaking a human language goes far beyond communication; it programs each person’s mind. It might be that the way you think, and even your identity may be the result of the language you speak.
One day at the café, I was swapping some short-wave listening stories with a fellow patron. We’d both had the experience of hearing a broadcast in a totally unknown language.
I told him my story of riding a campus bus filled with participants in a Berkeley mathematical conference. I heard many languages. I could recognize: German, French, Spanish and Russian. Mathematics seemed to be a common language; there were numerous exchanges of sheets of notebook paper, covered with cryptic symbols. Two people sitting just in front of me were conversing in a totally unfamiliar language; I couldn’t get any of it, except for an occasional English reference to something in Berkeley. I later found out that I had been hearing Turkish.
No amount of listening to a foreign language will produce any comprehension – unless there are some clues to establish what is being communicated. The Jupiter chirps are incomprehensible. So is the Cygni voice. We have no context. Without context, any language is gibberish.
I was about to conclude that the gas bags on Jupiter or G87 were, like whales, of a lower communications order than humans, when someone munching their Tau Tofu at the next table pointed out that some humans endlessly repeat nonsense on talk radio and in political speeches, yet we treat this as intelligent communication.
OK, I stand corrected. Communication is strongly cultural. One must be inside the culture to communicate in a way that is more than rudimentary. We here on Earth are so far outside of the ET cultures that there is no communication at all. There’s barely any communication with whales.
With this understanding, can we break through the culture barriers? Jupiter is much closer than any of the stars. Could we send a message to the chirping beings on Jupiter to tell them we’re listening to their twitter? We can make directed radio beams, can’t we? We’ve dropped probes into the atmosphere of both Jupiter and Saturn. It would be great if we found a general way for ground-based humans and airborne beings on gas giant planets to communicate. Rocky Earth-like planets with water oceans may be rare, but current indications are that gas giant planets are quite common.
Because of the orbit dimensions, the speed-of-light radio delay from Earth to Jupiter varies between 20 and 40 minutes. This is clumsy for a conversation, but is reasonable for sending a message and waiting for a response. It isn’t like waiting 30 years for a return-chirp from G87. Some researchers are working on building a simple gadget for generating Earth chirps to send to Jupiter, using a big radar transmitter.
Starman is excited about the notion of interplanetary communication. He thinks that Jovian Whales could be communicating with their fellow electrified gas bag beings on Saturn, or even Uranus and Neptune. If so, some of the chirps we’ve been listening to could be interplanetary talk.
Dr Winston thinks Starman is going too far, but he concedes the possibility that gas bag anatomy, in addition to generating electric sparks, might also be able to detect and amplify radio waves. It’s faintly possible that Jupiter has been talking to G87 – or at least listening to it.
Dr. Winston had been out of town; I hadn’t seen him for a while, so when I came into the SETI Café today, I was pleased to see him with Felix and two people I didn’t know sitting together at a big table and having a lively discussion in subdued tones.
They seemed occupied with their discussion, so I didn’t butt in. I noticed they were all eating the Epsilon Eridani salad. I put in an order of it for myself and sat down with my laptop to check my email.
The subdued conversation went on for about 5 more minutes, then I heard somebody say “Hey, we could ask him!” and I was drawn into their discussion. They wanted to know, historically, how many deliberate messages Earth has sent to the stars, and specifically whether any one of those messages was constructed so that the ETs would recognize it as originating from an intelligent civilization – and be able to understand what was sent.
I consulted some notes I had on my laptop and gave them the following summary:
The first such message was sent from the big Arecibo dish in 1974. It consisted of an array of 1679 bits, and was aimed at M13, the great globular star cluster in Hercules. Any ETs who picked it up were assumed to be smart enough to see that 1679 is the product of two prime numbers, 23 and 73. The ETs would then use that information to display the bits as a 23x73 grid of dots. If they do this, they would see a series of simple pictures. I guess an immediate reply wasn’t expected because M13 is 25,000 light-years distant, but there sure are a lot of stars in that cluster – more than 30,000 – and thus a lot of possible ETs.
Straight analog has also been sent. In 2001, a radio telescope in the Ukraine was used to send electronic music, the wailing sounds of a Theremin, an entirely electronic instrument played by moving ones hands near “antennas,” which connect to capacitor plates. The Theremin message was beamed toward six nearby stars. We may be receiving something like that kind of message now, but it doesn’t seem to be a Theremin. We’re still not sure how universal music actually is.
There have been numerous other efforts to beam Earth’s favorite music out to several different stars. It’s not clear whether our music would sound intelligent to an ET. We do think we recognize musical intelligence in the music we hear from the void.
It has been pointed out many times that leakage of our radio and TV has been providing abundant evidence that we have cultures here on Earth. Some people think this could be dangerous, because we may be inviting invaders.
The first serious effort to send a “here we are, and we’re smart!” message went out in 2008 from Ukraine’s radar to Gliese 581, a red dwarf star. The signal was something of a digital time capsule, with music and voice contributions from numerous celebrities. No effort was made to train the ETs to understand it.
In 2009, the 70-meter antenna at Tinbinbilla Australia was used to send text messages to the ‘d’ planet of Gliese 581. A website had collected goodwill messages from the public for 13 days in August 2009. Gliese 581d is one of the exoplanets thought to be able to support life. The distance is 20.5 light-years.
I have not heard of any efforts to construct a message that’s sure to be both recognized and understood. Nobody is sure just what is required to accomplish this. Sending prime numbers or Fibonacci numbers probably would signal some level of intelligence, but our languages still would not be understood. And of course, any likely destination is not going to quickly reply and begin a conversation. They are just too far away. And here on Earth, I’m not aware that any whales have reacted in any way when they listen to a list of prime numbers. Apparently at least one whale did act appreciative of a clarinet solo.
Several science fiction scenarios have imagined the aliens beginning their message with a exact repeat of something they had received from us. The message from Epsilon Eridani with Spanish in it could be an attempt by an ET to communicate with Earth, but it is most likely random leakage from an ET local news report describing how their scientists had received our radio.
“Well, we’ve got a closer target now.” Dr. Winston was now talking to me. “We’re getting together a Jovian Whale Contact Group (JWCG). We’re going to try to send a message to Jupiter, to see if those Jovian Whales hear it and electrically chirp us a reply. Perhaps we should preface it with some of the chirps we have been receiving.”
“I’ve thought some about that possibility,” I began. “Remember the movie ‘Contact’? The first received ET message was a Hitler speech – the ETs sent it as an indication that they had been listening to our leakage broadcasts circa 1939. Since we have no idea what the Jovian Whales are chirping about, we might end up sending them something provocative, scary, politically incorrect or even insulting. Sure, we could send back some of the same chirps we’ve received, but it probably should be a rather short segment. Maybe we should send several short segments randomly chosen from what we’ve received. The Jovian Whales would probably recognize that as a random collage of their own chatter, not intended to mean anything, but a strong indication that we have heard them talking.”
For a while, this notion was batted around within the JWCG. Somebody likened it to a duck hunter’s call – a gadget which makes a sound like a duck to attract ducks to the hunter. Another person pointed out that, because of the difficulty of breaking free from giant planet gravity, let alone building space ships that could carry Jovian Whales, the Jovians probably would not be coming to Earth. A better idea would be to drop a probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere to float there and act as a communications transmitter/receiver.
Agreement was reached that the first message to Jupiter would consist of a prefix containing a random sampling of four radio chirps received from Jupiter, followed by chirps representing the first 10 integers (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10), followed by another chirp sequence representing the first 8 prime numbers (2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19). The numbers were represented by the same chirp repeated the appropriate number of times. The primes would be: xx xxx xxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. This is cumbersome, but it’s fairly easy to figure out.
Arrangements were made to transmit the JWCG message from a radar antenna which had been used to map the Moon and Venus. The signal message would be sent several times, to cover Jupiter’s rotation period, trying to beam the message to as many localities as possible, where the Jovian Whales might be hanging out.
At this point, I asked the group what they would be looking for as a response. “We still don’t know their language,” I pointed out.
The JWCG consensus was not to expect anything specific, just listen at the same frequencies on which we’d originally heard bursts and see what we can make of the response. One person did suggest that a responding Jovian Whale might repeat some of our message back. Another possibility was that a mathematically inclined Jovian Whale might send the first digits of Pi.
Felix spoke up then, to suggest some general principles for communicating with an ET civilization. “First, we have to attract attention by sending something the ETs are sure to recognize. Then we have to send something which could only come from an intelligent civilization. Maybe we can assume that mathematics is universal. Or maybe the common language at this first stage is not mathematics, but music.”
That made me stop and think about the notion of music being used to train our brains to understand the ET language. Could we construct such music to train ETs to understand English?
On his way out, Felix took me aside and remarked, “We may be over-estimating the technical level of the Jovian Whales. What would Earth’s whales make of the prime numbers? Not much, I’d think. How do primes relate to their water-borne life style? We could be surprised, I suppose.”
I made a Starman-like suggestion at that point. “How about trying out our whale songs on the Jovians? We could speed up some songs of the humpbacked whales and send them to Jupiter as chirps. Maybe the Jovan Whales will hear something in them that we’ve been missing.”
“That’s a great idea!”, Felix said. “I’ll get the JWCG to set it up.”
I wished the group good luck and said I’d be very interested in hearing about any results they get.
A few days after my encounter with the JWCG, I had arranged a visit to the SSE lab on the Campus. I went there sponsored by Felix Fanchot and Dr. Winston.
I only vaguely understand the SSE technology. After their success with so many signals, the SSE lab funding has been increased. It’s a sizeable operation now. I saw at least four separate work stations, each of which had the hardware part of the SSE plus a computer which ran the software and connected to data servers. At one of the stations, the hardware box was open and a technician was doing something to the circuit cards inside it.
I recognized Don Sharp, the young black man on the SSE staff who had spoken at the ET message conference. He showed us around.
Don said that they process signals by setting up the SSE hardware, which involves installing some small circuit cards, setting switches on the box and giving software commands. Then they start the SSE operating software and import radio telescope files from a data server. The process takes much longer than any signal duration, because statistics must be computed and then used to control how an output signal is produced.
One of their techniques is to use various segments and lengths of the signal to compute the statistics. Sometimes, for no clear reason, using one particular segment is this way produces much better output results than using anything else. There’s a lot of guesswork involved. Don prefers to call it “heuristic tuning.”
I asked how much processing of the signal was done at the telescope.
“They do a lot,” was the reply. “They digitize it, remove jitter produced by the telescope hardware, and compensate for the frequency shift produced by the orbital motion of the Earth. They also compensate for the space motion between us and the source star, which is in its own orbit within the galaxy. The whole 61 Cygni system is moving toward us at about 64 km/sec; that produces a strong Doppler.
“Here at the SSE lab, we compensate for the source planet’s motion around its star. In the case of Epsilon Eridani, for example, we are fairly sure which planet has the FM station, and so we compensate for that planet’s orbital motion.”
Don indicated a different work station nearby. It had a tall rack of equipment. “Here is where we do post-processing. When we’ve extracted an FM signal, the hardware here filters and demodulates the audio.”
I asked, “Do you apply any motion compensation to the MV signal?”
“That’s problematic,” replied Don, “because we don’t know what the source is, let alone how it might be moving. So there might be an unknown frequency shift introducing distortion. It can’t be much of a problem, because the music comes through so nicely.
Our post-processor can pull out audio from any frequency. There have been dropouts within the music, which might be the result of source motion breaking the SSE lock. Could be. I just know we’ve somehow pulled out this lovely music. It’s still very much a possibility that we’ve been contaminated by somebody’s local FM transmitter, but right now, I sure don’t see how.”
I was slightly confused.
Don then confused me some more. “Here’s another little mystery,” he continued, showing us a printout of an image.
“The optical telescope at Lick Observatory stared hard at our alleged MV blank spot and produced this little smudge. I’m told that it is a remote galaxy, and that this galaxy might be acting as a gravitational lens, magnifying the signal intensity of whatever is making the music. Lick got a rough spectrum of the galaxy smudge, and it looks like it has a red shift corresponding to a distance of 8 million light-years. If it’s really a lens, then the music source is going to be behind the lens, much farther away. If so, the music-making ETs would have to be an awesomely ancient civilization.
I must have looked stunned. Don grinned at me. He said, “There are other less exotic possibilities. The smudge galaxy may just happen to be in the field of view, in the far background, and maybe there’s an MV source star quite close, but especially dim, like a brown dwarf.”
I objected. “Then wouldn’t the source show a changing Doppler? An orbiting planet can’t be standing still.”
“Yes, I’d think so,” Don nodded, “but as far as I know the MV signal does not show a Doppler change beyond that caused by the Earth’s motion. Most mysterious.
We all left the SSE lab then, Felix and Dr. Winston to their offices, me to some comfort food at the SETI Café. The SSE gives me a headache.
George Wells has now completed his first experiment with test subjects. They used a different MV selection than either I, Jim or Starman had listened to.
The results were mixed. The written impressions varied so widely that it seemed as if they had not all been listening to the same thing. There was a vaguely consistent story, about being in a place resembling Heaven, with spirits flitting about. Some described having conversations; some, like me, just described floating among luminous clouds; some spoke of being high in the sky or out in space.
He repeated the experiment, having everyone listen to a different MV selection. The reactions were different, but fell into the same general categories.
He did it twice more, all the time with the same experimental subjects.
Then, after a couple weeks had passed, he had the group again listen to the original MV selection.
He expected a new set of stories, only generally matching their originals, presumably expecting that hearing the other selection would have randomized their thoughts.
Instead, every subject reported almost exactly the same experience he had originally reported, right down to the specific spirits encountered. The music was very specific and predictable in what it could evoke.
To be sure, he repeated one of the other MV selections. Again, the music produced exactly the same visions as it had before. The test subjects each had a distinct reaction.
There’s something very strange and mysterious about Music from the Void.
Now George and Felix want to get the MV selections analyzed in various ways, to see if they can track down what produces these amazingly consistent results
We shall see.
If MV is actually coming from Earth, whoever is making it may have a great tool for emotional control, propaganda. I’m a little uneasy about this prospect.
If it’s really coming from space, maybe it’s something weird like a space-time warp that’s wrapping some past broadcast back to us. If the radio telescope is picking up some local FM music station, I’d think we would occasionally hear an announcer. If someone at the radio telescope is inserting the music into the message, they sure are persistent, and I’m amazed that so far, nobody has recognized any of the MV music.
Another thing: nearly all the MV compositions are really great stuff. There are some occasional somewhat boring pieces. If the composer is really an Earthling, he should have his work published and get some recognition. The “Music from the Void” CD is still in the works for release. I wonder if the composer will come forward and claim a cut of the proceeds. Starman imagines a UFO landing in the parking lot of the studio and the “ET Sibelius” emerging, CD in hand, to march into the executive offices and press his claim.
I suppose, since the CD does not contain unadulterated MV selections, purchasers will be safe from dangerous visions. Still, even with the modified music, I hope the producers run some listener tests.
Starman suggested to Cosmo that the Café might make some money selling unadulterated MV CDs. Cosmo is going to check with some authorities.
The SETI Café has become a popular gathering spot for scientists, students, journalists, writers and the general public who are following developments in messages from extraterrestrials. A visitor can always find somebody to talk to about ETs. The level of expertise may vary, but the interest and enthusiasm is always high.
The star-themed food is selling well. The best sellers are the Epsilon Eridani Broccoli and Nut Salad and the Super Earth Tofu, closely followed by the Mesklin Meatloaf.
Tau Tofu retains some popularity as well, in spite of the Tau Morse fiasco.
Another big seller is Abner’s recently-developed Jupiter-themed dish. One of the customers had suggested making it whale steak, but this was quickly vetoed as politically incorrect — a sizeable number of SETI Café patrons are members of Greenpeace. Abner settled on “Jupiter Red Spot Yogurt” which is yogurt stirred with a variety of colored sauces to produce stripes and bands; there’s a little red berry on top to represent the Great Red Spot. It kind of looks like Jupiter. You get tiny chunks of cookie mixed into it, representing the Jovian Whales. Abner can be quite imaginative. The Café’s offerings had always been a little short on desserts.
Abner had already created “Eggs HD,” with polenta, inspired by HD85 and HD28, but he refuses to be inspired by the Music from the Void enough to create a dish for it. He maintains that MV is not from an ancient ET civilization but some natural cosmic singing we have yet to understand. He scoffs at the visions.
The original artificial ET Music is still being produced from several stars, and café customers keep listening to it, but there's much less talk of channeling ET thoughts these days, probably because most people now see the original ET Music as kind of artificial, while the HD packets and the FM voices are really from ETs.
The MV music from the void keeps coming in. The cosmic composer doesn’t seem to run out of musical ideas. Some of this music has been adapted to Earth musical conventions and used as the basis for making new music. At this time, nobody knows who/what is making the music. No star has been identified as the MV source, and it’s very hard to accept that the musicians are really way out there in the realm of the galaxies, and aeons ago in look-back time.
SETI research has become extremely popular at UC Berkeley. There are plenty of students working in Dr. Winston's group, and in the linguistics group. I'm told the groups are conducting regular seminars in which people report progress on their various projects.
The students studying HD85 and HD28 are frustrated, because they can’t make much sense of the data in the packets they are studying. Since they don't know what is being measured, it's difficult to say much about this data. One number in a packet might be a distance from an orbital center, because it increases and decreases around an average value over long time periods. Since we don't know what distance units are being used, we can't say whether that average value is close to the orbital radius of any of the likely planets. The only consensus is that we are receiving a signal probably not beamed deliberately at us, and that the signal is probably part of some deep-space communications project local to the remote star system.
Can we expect the ETs to base their units of length on something universal, not the length of the human foot or the standard Meter stick? How about the speed of light?
I checked Wikipedia, and found this:
The metre (meter in the US), symbol m, is the base unit of length in the International System of Units (SI). Originally intended to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the Earth's equator to the North Pole (at sea level), its definition has been periodically refined to reflect growing knowledge of metrology. Since 1983, it is defined as the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum in 1 / 299,792,458 of a second.
This does not encourage me. I find it hard to believe that any ET would just happen to adopt something close to Earth measurement units. Someone at HD85 might well choose a unit of length based on the speed of light in vacuum, but would they define their “meter” unit with the exact multiple 299,792,458? Not unless they had been using our meter stick.
Interstellar measurement standards? Not likely. Hey, here on Earth, we can't even standardize on the spelling of "meter."
The other numbers in the HD85 packets might be 12-bit numbers. Some might be characters coded in a 12-bit byte, or pairs of 6-bit characters.
When I explained the 60-bit floating-point number possibility to Starman, he suggested that since they came up with something the same as we did, the HD85 folks might actually think a lot like we do, which means that they could be using an alphabet not wildly different from ours.
So we are now receiving messages generated by ET life of some sort in orbit around the stars Epsilon Eridani, 61 Cygni, HD85 and HD28 and G87. We know how far away these ETs are. None are closer than 10 light-years. That’s way too far away for conversational message exchange. The gas giant beings on Jupiter are the closest ETs we know about, and we’re not sure we’ve really communicated with them. We barely carry on more productive conversations with the whales in Earth’s oceans.
How close is the MV -- “music from the void?” Could MV be a star close by, but too dim to detect? Possibly, but Lick Observatory did detect that fuzzy faint far-off galaxy in the MV field of view. If this galaxy is really a gravitational lens that is amplifying the MV signal, then the MV music source must be very far away indeed – millions of light-years. Felix thinks the music CD title should be changed from “Music from the Void” to “Music from the Beginning of Time” – because it might be coming from an ancient look-back time.
I mentioned this look-back time issue to Cosmo and he suggested that if MV is really so far away, then the music cannot originate from any ET civilization at all, because it comes from before any intelligent civilizations evolved. I’m not sure whether that idea makes sense.
Last night, the SETI Café stayed open late for a special musical performance. I was there, along with Starman, Cosmo and Felix. Something like a chamber music group played compositions inspired by all the various music received from the stars. There was a viola, a cello, a flute, an oboe and a xylophone.
Several of the pieces were very abstract and modern, full of hums and plunks. Some other compositions reminded me of the twangy ET Music from Epsilon Eridani.
The flute and the xylophone played a composition of chirps inspired by G87.
For one selection, someone operated an electronic synthesizer. I couldn’t be sure what stellar source inspired this piece; maybe it was an original creation.
The last piece was based on the MV “Music from the Void.” It was played by only the cello, which did the melodies and the oboe, which did the drones. I was told that it was transcribed from one of the music selections received from the void, but adjusted to fit with Earth-based musical notes. I really liked it.
During the intermission, I ran into Paul Graham, the local preacher.
For a while, Paul had thought the Cygni language might be some variety of Hebrew, because of the abundance of glottal stops and rasps. He played the sermon for several speakers of Hebrew and Arabic. None of them recognized the language, but after they’d immersed themselves in the music for a while, some of them got the same general impression from the voice that I and Paul had reported. Hey, it must really be revelation.
Paul told me that he and several members of his congregation have tried to use the Cygni music to become able to understand the Cygni sermon. They said it was nice stuff, but kind of vague; they were hoping to understand something more specific than “be nice to your neighbor.”
I decided not to mention the MV visions to Paul just then.
After Paul moved away to talk with someone else, another writer I know, who had overheard my conversation with Paul, remarked to me, with a smirk: “’More specific?’ Hey, I thought the Golden Rule was supposed to be the central basis of Judaeo-Christianity.”
That remark may have been somewhat mean-spirited, but it made me stop and think about what we might be expecting from our ET messages. Is it revelation from a superior civilization? Is it validation of our beliefs? What would happen if we became able to understand the Cygni Announcer as well as we do English? Would we hear so many new ideas that we couldn’t absorb them all? I can imagine Berkeley starting a proliferation of political factions and religious sects, in conflict with conservative traditionalists who will want to ban contact with the evil aliens.
I mentioned these ideas to Starman. He said, “I don’t think we’re in much danger of intellectual or religious overload from any ET. Hey, we can’t even get together enough common objects to really translate even one ET language. The zombie stuff is fun, but it’s just too vague.
“You know though,” he said with a smile, “we really do have one common object, something we do appear to share. It’s music.”
He might be right. Maybe listening to ET music really does do something toward enabling our understanding. I wonder if any ETs out there have gotten any understanding of Earth from all our leaked radio and TV programs. We know the Epsilonians picked up at least one of our religious broadcasts.
Yesterday, the Jovian Whale Contact Group transmitted their radar message to Jupiter. At Jupiter’s current position, it would take at least 60 minutes for the message to get there and an immediate reply to come back. After waiting that time, two radio telescopes began monitoring Jupiter.
They may have received a reply.
There was a string of chirps, first some random stuff, then it was clear that they recognized their own stuff in our message, because they repeated two of those segments. Then there were several short episodes of intense rapid chirping.
Felix described this as a “huh?” reply. He thinks at least one Jovian Whale heard our message, was surprised by something we said, and began chattering about it. It’s not clear whether the chatter was aimed at his local Jovian Whale friends or at us – or both.
I suppose it was too much to expect anything like “hello Earthlings, glad to hear from you. Yeah, we use prime numbers too. Are you trying to find xxxx?” (perhaps we’d inadvertently sent something intended for a Jovian Whale named xxxx.)
It was exciting to get any kind of response. Messages to the whales on Earth get something like a “huh?” response too; the only thing we can recognize is when they echo something we sent.
The Jovian Whales did not appear to have any special reaction to the speeded-up recordings of the songs of Earth’s humpbacked whales.
Felix says the JWCG is going to keep sending messages, if they can get some more time on that radar, and more radio telescope time to listen for a response.
It’s quite likely that the Jovian Whales did not realize that our message came from another planet, if they indeed understood the concept of other planet. I hope it wasn’t interpreted as the voice of God coming down from the heavens. What would be our response if a voice partly in our language, partly in an unknown language suddenly broke into the program of one of our radio stations?
Having achieved a very rudimentary exchange of pleasantries with the denizens of Jupiter’s atmosphere, the JWCG wondered about the other three gas giant planets in our solar system. Are there beings like the Jovian Whales in the atmosphere of Saturn? Do they chirp? What about Uranus and Neptune?
Saturn is known to have intense lightning. In 2006, the Cassini spacecraft, orbiting Saturn, captured radio waves from a huge storm in Saturn’s atmosphere. The lightning bolts were more than 1000 times stronger than those on Earth. The storm covered an area larger than the continental US.
First, the JWCG wanted to listen before sending anything.
One of the radio telescopes which had been monitoring Jupiter now switched its attention to Saturn. The same frequency and SSE settings were used, assuming that Saturn’s Whales are similar to those of Jupiter.
Radio bursts were found and converted to audible chirps. There were many fewer Saturn chirps than come from Jupiter.
Saturn sounded something like G87. Some of the Saturn chirps were recorded and then slowed down for playback. As with Jupiter, the result sounded hauntingly similar to the songs of humpbacked Whales.
The radar was then used to send a message to Saturn. The Jupiter chirps were replaced with chirps from Saturn. The speeded-up humpbacked whales were also included.
It took a longer time to get results, and they were not very exciting. There may have been a burst of chirps just after our message was received, but nothing that showed that our message had been heard. It might be that the radar’s signal was too weak at Saturn.
The radar then tried transmitting to Uranus, with the same settings as used for Saturn. The results were essentially negative. Uranus shows plenty of cloud systems. The planet is unusual in that some ancient collision knocked it over on its side, so its poles are where the equator would be on other planets.
The SSE picked up some random bursts from storms on Uranus, but activity was much lower than on Jupiter or Saturn. There were no flocks of chirping birds on Uranus.
The storms do put out some radio waves, and the SSE does pick up an occasional chirp. Starman, Cosmo and I were kind of hoping the scooters would turn out to be really big and active Jovian Whales. It doesn’t look that way. Maybe for Jovian Whale life to develop, the planet must be larger than some minimum size, and warmed some minimum amount by its star.
The ET messages have now stirred up the politicians.A few members of the US Congress have objected to communicating with ET Aliens at all, claiming that we are encouraging an invasion. I think most members of Congress have now realized that SETI is only receiving messages from the stars, not sending messages out.
A few were worried about the Jovian Whales mounting an attack on of Earth, perhaps preceded by zapping Earth with Jovian lightning. They calmed down to some degree when told about the difficulties involved.
One politician in Japan thought that by sending speeded-up recordings of humpbacked whale songs, we might motivate the Jovian Whales to send information to our whales about how to use lightning to defend themselves against Japanese whaling ships. He wanted the JWCG to promise not to play any Jovian Whale songs into Earth’s oceans.
There are proposals in the US Congress for sending messages to some of the source stars, telling the ETs that we can hear their music and voice. The Ukrainians are talking about using their big radar again, to signal Epsilon Eridani or 61 Cygni.
Several people have pointed out that such messages have already been sent, numerous times, with no replies so far. It’s probably too expensive a project to get approved during a time of national budget cuts.
Regardless, nobody has a clear idea of what to send, given the evident language barrier, and of course the many years of time delay.
A Russian linguist claims to have identified a few Russian language forms in the language of the 61 Cygni Announcer, and maybe even a few distorted Russian words too. They’d like to try sending a Russian language broadcast to 61 Cygni to see what happens.
George, Felix and I have agreed, for now, not to publicize any accounts of visions experienced by people who listen extensively to MV. We want to wait for more analysis. Both Cosmo and I are worried about the reaction of the controlled substances people in the US Government, if they think we’re pushing some kind of ET thrill pill.
Several customers at the Café recently brought up the TV issue again. Why don’t any ET planets leak their television or Internet? That’s still a good question. We’re pretty sure that TV from Earth leaks out to the stars. The ETs might have some difficulty figuring out how the line breaks and frame breaks are marked.
I had been exchanging emails with Bob Weiss, the clever retired engineer in Portland. He recently sent me a nice summary of the TV issue. Here’s part of it:
“I think it is pretty easy to recognize analog TV, e.g. NTSC and PAL. We earthlings have gotten away from analog TV, and now use digital, which is a stream of packets making up a `transport stream'. A transport stream usually carries several `program streams' each identified with a `program ID' [PID]. In some respects decoding a transport stream is similar to decoding an Internet stream.
“One difference though, is that digital TV is always compressed, e.g., mpeg-4. This is not encryption, but it might be difficult to figure out.
“Digital TV reception is sort of like FM reception. As the signal weakens, there is no change in the received signal until it crosses minimum signal strength, when nothing is received.
“Another possible form of modulation is `phase rotation modulation'. This would be a `linear-polarized' radio wave that is rotated back and forth (less than half a turn) for the modulation. This can be done very rapidly using electronic means.
“Clouds with free electrons between us and the source will rotate the polarization, but it will appear as a DC offset in the received signal.
“In addition to rotating the polarization, the electrons also retard the signal. This is what limits the accuracy of GPS — unless you compensate for the effect by using two harmonically rated frequencies in the same path.”
From what Bob says, then, it looks like receiving TV might be as complicated as understanding languages. We do, however, have some common concepts: the pixel (intensity and color), line and frame – unless the ETs have come up with some totally different concept for making a picture into a signal.
I was invited to attend Dr. Winston’s latest conference on the ET messages, held on the UC Berkeley Campus. The group was small this time, about 30, mostly local people. There were presentations from astronomers, linguists and the SSE group.
The astronomers summarized the sources of ET messages and the likelihood of a planet with a technological civilization. The SSE people described the types of signals they have processed, and their reliability and quality. The linguists summarized the ET languages, and their efforts to understand them.
Dr. Winston pointed out that most of our sources are probably planets similar to Earth, small, rocky worlds with water and a shielding atmosphere. It’s possible that some civilizations have developed on big moons orbiting large Jupiter-like planets.
We might have detected life in the atmosphere of gas giant planets themselves, but these living beings do not seem to be a form we can communicate with, any better than shouting at a flock of roosting birds. We can get a reaction, but no useful information is passed.
We are fairly confident that we have really received possible ET messages from the following sources:
Epsilon Eridani, 10 light-years distant, a sun-like star. It has a planet with 1.55 Jupiter mass, two asteroid belts; there could be some rocky Earth-like planets. The message may be leakage from a planetary FM station. There’s both music and voice.
HD85 (HD 85512), 35 light-years distant, sun-like star. It has a planet with 4 times Earth mass. Messages appear to be telemetry packets, possibly from a deep space transmitter used for local ET space research.
HD28 (HD 28185), 138 light-years distant, a yellow dwarf star similar to our Sun. It has a planet in the habitable zone with earthlike year, but the planet is big, like Jupiter, and may not have a surface. We could be hearing from ETs living on one of the giant planet’s larger moons. Messages appear to be telemetry packets, similar but not the same as those from HD85.
There was a summary presentation of the “Jovian Whale” encounters. The chirps are real, and almost certainly the result of electric sparking, even lightning. There is some thought that we are hearing from gas bag beings floating in the atmosphere — Jovian Whales talking with each other, kind of like the way Earth whales do. It was pointed out that speeding up humpbacked whale song sound a lot like the chirps from Jovian Whales.
It seems likely that G87 (Gliese 876), with several gas giant planets 15 light-years distant, might have the same kind of (semi-)intelligent life as on Jupiter. It’s an intriguing thought that the numerous gas giant planets in the galaxy could all evolve Jupiter’s form of life.
Using a radar, an attempt was made to communicate with beings on Jupiter, partly by repeating chirps received from them. The results were ambiguous. Even sending a speeded-up version of humpbacked whale songs did not elicit a recognizable response. Similar attempts to communicate with gas giants Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have produced no results.
Don Sharp, from the SSE group, went over the technology behind the SSE. For most of it, he also went way over my head. Don said SSE is working well, especially after they had developed ways to easily adjust its parameters. He said that SSE is very experimental and still requires a certain amount of guesswork to get results.
Someone asked him if they were sure they were really getting cosmic signals, not internal artifacts. Don acknowledged that, because SSE is so complicated, this is a real danger. He said that the SSE group frequently repeats processing of a set of data, with parameter changes, and the radio telescopes routinely deliver several measurements, some with pointing adjusted slightly away from the source.
They have also tried numerous processing runs with the telescope not aimed at anything that might be a source – a “blank area” of the sky. They don’t think they are picking up internal noise, but they have been surprised by what appears to be at least one real source from a blank area -- the notorious MV “music from the void.” Don admitted that it was still possible that the beautiful music actually originates from some FM station on Earth. They’ve sent audio recordings of MV music to several radio stations, but so far, none have claimed the music as theirs. One musician friend of Starman’s still is convinced that at least some of MV is obscure works by Alan Hovhaness.
There were no reports of the MV visions given at this conference.
Don then spoke briefly about “ET Marconi.” He said that it is still possible that we might pick up leakage from a civilization that had just begun to run a radio transmitter. We might indeed hear the dots and dashes of an ET Marconi with a code key. True, a primitive transmitter would probably not have enough power to leak into space, but some ET civilization might be in an environmental situation that gives easy access to a major power source to drive his equipment.
The point is that we should not stop looking for a “Morse source” just because somebody faked one from Tau Ceti. Code groups could be a great way to capture an ET language in a written form.
The linguists were up next. They played samples of ET voice received from 61 Cygni and from Epsilon Eridani. They showed transliterations they had done and said that neither language was like one of Earth’s. Neither ET language has tones. The Cygni and Epsiloni languages did not seem to be related to each other.
The linguist doing the presenting at this point was a blind man named Dr. Louis Engel. He remarked that being blind had helped him concentrate on the ET music and voice. He said that he himself hadn’t gotten much out of any of the voices and that perhaps the zombies were kidding themselves.
Dr. Engel said that the linguists had contacted speakers of many different languages and played them the voices. Nobody recognized anything. As far as the linguists can tell, the languages are truly extraterrestrial.
Someone asked about the Spanish language voice segment received from Epsilon Eridani. Dr. Engel said it was definitely Spanish, and consistent with other broadcasts from Radio Santa Rosa. Personally, he was suspicious that somebody had worked the Spanish into the radio telescope data. The Spanish broadcast does appear to be from 20 years back, but it’s possible somebody could have got hold of a recording and fed it to the telescope. So far, nobody has found anything in the ET language which appears connected to the Spanish. It remains a mystery.
Dr. Engel then went into some detail about the “common objects” issue. He said that translating ET languages may be impossible unless we get more of an idea of what they are talking about – some common objects. He said he wished that all those UFO stories really indicated that we are having ET visitors right now; he would like to invite a few of those UFO visitors to stop by the linguistics lab and give him some help. He’d even provide UFO parking. That got a laugh.
Then he got serious. He described how good writing, especially technical writing, begins with getting words, ideas and concepts clearly defined before using them. The teaching of languages works the same way. Any attempt to create a “universal language” will have to be based on this principle. We might get lucky and encounter an ET who has gotten a start on a universal language, maybe even a group of ETs who have already begun universal communication. Dr. Engel offered his opinion that the spacecraft telemetry we have been receiving from HD85 and HD28 might be a significant start.
The last linguist to speak at the conference, a graduate student named Karen Banks, told us about clubs of amateur language learners, all over the world. They are a brainchild of an organization known as the Institute for Language Experience, Experiment & Exchange, also known as LEX, which was created in 1981 by Yo Sakakibara in Japan, where the clubs are especially active today.
In club activities, both children and adults acquire multiple languages simultaneously, using natural language acquisition – the way children learn a language.
Club members get together at least once a week for interactive activities. They listen to speeches, conversations and songs, in different languages. Those members who feel confident, may recite what they feel they can from the recordings, even if the sounds are not accurate, and even if they don't exactly know what they are saying; the goal is simply to get a feel for the language sounds and tones of voice. Members play games, sing songs, dance, and speak with each other in the various languages they are learning.
Karen said that she belongs to one of these clubs, and had acquired partial fluency in 15 different languages. She said she had heard that a few LEX clubs in California have been studying the languages of the ET voice messages. They are hampered by the lack of common objects, let alone an English translation, but they absorb what they hear anyway. Some club members have become rather good at mimicking the 61 Cygni Announcer, using approximations for the difficult sounds. One group in San Diego is particularly interested in the voice from Epsilon Eridani, because that civilization is “close” to Earth, and because of the Spanish in it. A few club members say they can almost feel like they’re talking about the Spanish broadcast when they are mimicking the Epsiloni voice.
The final presentation of the conference was given by a woman from the UC History department named Dr. Adrienne Waal.
She suggested that the difficulty with finding common objects to use for learning an ET language is not a new problem. In the past, when great civilizations encountered each other, they exchanged people. Commercial traders visited. Armies invaded (and were followed by administrators and commercial traders). These encounters led to the emergence of bilingual individuals and then to joint development of a creole language, which is an amalgam of the languages of both civilizations. Often, the creole would emerge as a language of its own, with monolingual creole speakers in some regions. That’s almost certainly how most of the modern languages of Europe originally developed, when Roman Latin encountered Celtic and Germanic.
We do not have this option now with the ET languages. Back in the 1500s it took months to cross the Atlantic Ocean, so it was possible to exchange people, slowly. It would be great to develop a cosmic creole, but we have no option of people-exchange with the ETs because it now takes many years, more than a lifetime, to cross the gulf between the stars. This will change only when somebody finds a way to travel faster than light, or more practically (given the evident robustness of Einstein’s theory), somebody finds a common mode of communication which allows each side to exchange ideas based on common objects. Sending a bit array with a primitive picture of our solar system and a male and female human is a start on this, but it doesn’t go very far.
Nobody, on Earth or elsewhere, has invented a reliable and effective way to send a message to another cosmic civilization in such a way as to teach the target how to understand what was sent.
Dr. Waal said that SETI research needs to concentrate much more on developing a message concept under which an ET can teach himself how to understand.
It may be that the only reliable way to send a civilization a message anything like “we are here and we can hear you” is to repeat some of their own stuff back to them. They will surely recognize it, and be able to distinguish it from anything else. This idea has been used in numerous science fiction stories.
The Jovian Whales Group used that technique, and may have provoked a puzzled response from Jupiter. Perhaps the Jovian Whales realized that, whoever we were, and wherever we were, we knew they were there even if we didn’t seem to have any idea about what they are saying. So far, there has been no exchanges of ideas. There hasn’t even been any one-way transmission of ideas.
Dr. Waal relayed a comment from a colleague in the Biology Department, to the effect that if sexual reproduction really has been a major mover for the evolution of life, and also motivates evolution of ET life, then one “common object” might well be sexual dimorphism. So sending the picture of a naked male and female human might really have been the right place to start. She gave a small smile.
Dr. Waal concluded her talk with these very pointed remarks:
“I notice a strong tendency among ET researchers here to assume that any ET technology will consist of the same kind of stuff that we here on Earth have been able to work out. There’s an unstated assumption that the only engineering solutions that exist are those we ourselves have found.
“Engineering solutions are strongly driven by environmental needs. The Romans had good carts, but didn’t use wheels with spokes, or seamless metal rims, until they encountered the Celts. The Incas didn’t use wheels at all; their mountain roads looked like flights of stairs, because they were used as stairs. Nobody in the entire Western Hemisphere developed gunpowder until the Europeans arrived and began blasting them with it. Paper didn’t really get used in Europe before the printing press.
“There’s no reason to assume that we and any ET will have a totally shared technology kit.
“This attitude about engineering solutions is likely to extend to ideas in general. And beyond this, there is the tendency to assume that the ETs themselves have to be physically at least approximately the same as us, with eyes, ears and limbs for manipulating things like a pen and a computer keyboard.
“It is entirely possible that we have very little in common with any ET. They all evolved far away from us, perhaps in very different physical environments. The ETs may not be able to see images the way we do. They might not even have a brain like we do.
“We’re getting some idea about this issue from our experiences with radio-chirping beings on Jupiter and what we’ve received from their possible relatives on gas giant planets like those of G87.
“We humans may yet turn out to be very much unique, so unique that we can communicate effectively only among ourselves, as seems to be the case among the whales and the birds.”
It was a good conference. The press was well-represented. I did my part for accurate journalism. Most of what you just read made it into the Associated Press report. Evidently some of the reporters now regard me as somewhat of an authority.
On the way out from the conference meeting, I overheard one of the astronomy graduate students liken the ET language situation to the Tower of Babel. The civilizations of the Universe can now hear each other, but nobody can understand anyone else's language. I made a note to myself to try this idea on Paul the preacher.
Felix introduced me to several people, telling them about the reports I had been writing and about hanging out at the SETI Café.
One guy asked me if I thought we were actually in contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. I said I thought some of the messages extracted by the SSE from radio telescope data were really sent by ETs, but we had already seen how easy it is for pranksters to fool us. I reminded this guy that in the Tau Morse fiasco, the pranksters had been people working at the radio telescope.
Another person asked if I had ever channeled an ET by listening to messages from the stars. I said I had not, but I knew at least one person who might have. If they wanted to talk about channeling ET, they should visit the SETI Café.
Finally, a guy asked me how it was possible to deliver extraterrestrial food to the SETI Café if the stars where it was being produced are many light-years distant. I told him that we writers know that fiction travels faster than light.
One of the people in the linguistics group has an elderly friend who plays the shamisen, the twangy 3-stringed instrument some people think they hear in the music from Epsilon Eridani. He invited the shamisen player into the linguistics lab and had him listen to the Epsiloni music. This musician said that our music sounded a little like a shamisen, but he pointed out that the notes were different. He had brought his instrument with him, and he played a few short pieces. His shamisen did sound rather different from the Eridani music.
Just for fun, the shamisen player listened intently to one short passage of Epsiloni music, which the staff played for him several times. He then tried to duplicate it on his shamisen. At first, it didn’t work at all, then he changed his tuning a little and produced something quite close to the original. But something was still not right. He thought the strings on “our” instrument might be made of the wrong stuff.
The shamisen player was a very nice old Japanese gentleman. The linguistics guys think that, even after he left, he still didn’t realize where the Epsiloni music had come from.
From time-to-time, Cosmo played some shamisen music in the Café. He played selections from Japanese artists and from Epsilon Eridani. Most of the time, people didn’t notice the difference.
The linguistics group has developed a standard transliteration for the Cygni and Epsiloni voices. They made the same transliteration scheme work for both. For 61 Cygni, they used the accented character ‘E-hat’ for the [peep!] which is so startling in the Announcer’s language. I guess the linguists think it sounds more like [eek!].
Having established their consistent transliteration scheme, the linguists were able to compile written word lists. They are now looking for common prefixes, case endings and tense markers. They’re doing all this without having any idea what information is being communicated, or what any of the words mean, so their description of the languages is still rather ragged.
The portion of the Epsilon Eridani broadcast that is in Spanish has been a source of much frustration. The linguists were hoping to use the Spanish as a key to the ET language, but if there is any “Rosetta Stone” passage (the same thing in both Spanish and Epsiloni), it’s not obvious. The linguists are coming to the conclusion that the Epsilonis were just as mystified by Spanish as we have been mystified by Epsiloni, which is possible since the Epsilonis didn’t have any common objects either.
The most language understanding success, such as it is, has come from Starman’s zombie contingent, who are working as an informal group, based at the SETI café. They listen to music and claim to translate ET voice. It’s hard for the linguists to say the zombies are wrong, because the linguists are not sure what’s right. Starman told me that the zombies are trying a new technique. On one audio channel, they listen to the voice and on the other channel, simultaneously in the background, listen to the corresponding music. I tried a little of that, using Starman’s computer, but didn’t get any improvement in my understanding of the Cygni voice.
I called Paul Graham, the preacher, to see if he had anything to report from listening to the “sermons” by the Cygni Announcer. He said he had given up on that project, because he couldn’t understand enough of what was said. I mentioned the voice from Epsilon Eridani, and he said he would try listening to that. He sounded a little annoyed with me.
Then he told me that he had been listening to MV. Somebody had told him about it.
“I think this music may have a divine origin,” he said. “It may be God’s way of giving us a vision of the afterlife, of Heaven.”
I told him I was pleased to hear that, and suggested that he be careful.
The search for ET messages tends to focus on stars similar to the Sun, that is, mid-sized yellow or orange stars. The search doesn’t pay much attention to the “dwarfs,” smaller stars for which the habitable zone might be too narrow or too close to the star for planets to form there.
Yellow stars like our Sun are easy enough to find, but red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the Sun's stellar neighborhood, and in the universe generally. Although called a “red” dwarf, the surface temperature of such a star would actually give it an orange hue when viewed from nearby.
Red dwarf stars tend to flare. They put out sudden bursts of energy which might fry a planetary civilization. Our Sun puts out flares too, usually called coronal mass ejections. The flares from red dwarfs can be much more energetic than solar flares.
A recent flare on the nearby star “II Pegasi,” was about a hundred million times more energetic than the typical solar flare. This flare star is only slightly less massive than our Sun. Were a comparable event to occur on the Sun, it would result in a mass extinction of life on Earth due to the outpouring of lethal X-rays. Fortunately, our Sun is a stable star that doesn't produce such powerful flares.
But the dwarfs are worth a look. Felix and a group of his fellow graduate students have recently been involved in studying an “M-class Dwarf.”
In the Café today, Felix took some time to explain to me what his group had turned up.
He began by telling me about their first target.
“The star is called Gliese 581. It’s also known as HO Librae – it’s in the constellation Libra. We’ve been calling it G58 for short. G58 is a red dwarf star of spectral type M3V, located about 20 light-years distant. Its estimated mass is about a third that of the Sun.
“Observations suggest that this little star has at least six planets, designated Gliese 581 e, b, c, d, f and g. The g planet is thought to be within the star’s habitable zone, although that’s not real clear. Another planet, Gliese 581b, is large and very close in; it might be a hot Neptune.”
I interrupted him. “Felix, is it possible that you chose this star for your project because it is on the SETI Café menu as having inspired “Red Star Beans, Beets and Onions?” I pointed to the item on the menu.
Felix grinned cheerfully. “Why sure,” he replied. “I was sitting here one day, wondering what would be a good M-class dwarf to study and there was one right in front of me. I don’t know who put it on the menu. Dr. Winston claims he didn’t and I’m sure I didn’t. It had to be Cosmo. Well, good.”
“So what did you turn up?” I encouraged him.
Felix continued his tale. “We got some radio telescope time at Stanford, chose some likely frequencies, observed and fed the signal data to the SSE here. We got results from two frequencies. One was very poor; it might have been voice, but it was too broken up to tell. The other frequency had a solid signal, in bursts of about half an hour. The bursts are separated by gaps of about 40 hours.”
I asked, “Can you tell which planet the signal is coming from?"
Felix gave a dismissive head-shake. “My guess is we’re hearing the ‘g’ planet, which has an orbital period of 37 days. Anyway, it seems ikely we’re hearing a radio station which was briefly beamed out toward Earth. Actually, that varies by a few hours, which is to be expected because of the mix of planet spin and orbital motion, assuming we’re hearing from a fixed ground station – we could be getting this from a moving spacecraft.
"We still don’t understand why the signal is so strong. A distance of 20 light-years should wash it out if there’s nothing to lens it. One of our group thinks the signal is being deliberately beamed up and out of the planet’s atmosphere. Conceivably, the aliens are probing their sky for ET civilizations. If so, they’ve now found one — us Earthlings!”
“Did you say what’s on the signal?” I prodded. “Is it music or voice?”
“It’s both,” Felix replied. It’s actually kind of strange. Some of it might be music. It’s kind of a whiney humming. Other parts I’m pretty sure are a voice. We’ve sent recordings to the linguistics group.
Let me play some of it for you.” Felix activated his laptop and then handed me his earphones. “There’s some of the music first, then a complete burst of the voice.”
I heard a thin wailing, which reminded me of a Theremin. The note varied and the volume rose and fell. The music wasn’t very interesting. I could believe I was hearing a short wave single-sideband station being tuned.
Then, abruptly, the voice cut in. It was deep, loud and authoritative. It sounded like a dictator’s political speech. The language didn’t sound at all like the other ET voices. I didn’t understand any of it.
“One of my friends says the voice is speaking in Klingon,” Felix said, with a smirk.
“Could be,” I replied. “The language is kind of harsh, with a lot of ‘sh’ sounds in it. Maybe G58 is ‘Kronos,’ the Klingon home world in Star Trek?”
“Yeah,” replied Felix, chuckling, “that sure would surprise the producers of Star Trek, wouldn’t it? I think one of my friends sent a recording of our Klingon speaker to some Trekkie fanatic he knows.
Felix frowned. “I think this Klingon thing has got to be another joker at work. I do not think this is real.
“Anyway,” Felix continued, “we studied several other red dwarfs too. One was Proxima Centauri. That’s the actual nearest star to us. Alpha Centauri is a binary system with two sun-like stars in close orbit. Proxima, a red dwarf, orbits 15,000 AU away from the center of mass of the binary. That far out, a quarter of a light-year, Proxima may not actually be in orbit, but just happens to be where it is as it wandered through the galaxy. It will remain our nearest star until it moves away.
“All we got was some flare noise. If Proxima has any close planet, the flares would probably be very dangerous for life there.
“Another one we looked at was Groombridge 34. That’s a binary system, 11.7 light-years distant in the constellation Andromeda. It produced no ET signals.
“Another was Gliese 623. That’s another binary; both components are red dwarfs, 25 light-years distant in the constellation Hercules. There was a hint of a signal, but it was not strong enough, or stable enough, for us to be sure we had anything. I think some flare noises can make the SSE do kind of a twitch. The SSE didn’t really pick up any ET radio signal there.
“Barnard’s Star is a single red dwarf, only 6 light-years distant. Barnard's Star has approximately 14% of the Sun’s mass; it has a radius 15% to 20% of that of the Sun. Barnard’s Star is famous for having the highest ‘proper motion’ of any star. This means that the star’s rate of movement within the galaxy results in the largest shift in Earth’s sky, per year, of any star, even more than that of 61 Cygni. Barnard’s seems to be a very old star. It may have planets, but this hasn’t been demonstrated. In the early 1970’s the astronomer Peter Van de Kamp claimed that there was a gas giant planet (maybe more than one) in orbit around Barnard’s Star. This claim was refuted when measurement errors were discovered. When the SSE looked at Barnard’s Star, it saw no ET signals, just some flare noise from the star itself.”
“So you essentially got a null result?” I ventured.
Felix replied, “Not totally. We did get the music from G58, even if the Klingon voice turns out to be a spoof.
“I claim that we showed that nearly all of the local group of red dwarf stars do not harbor any ET civilizations – unless they’re very quiet and reclusive. If anyone’s there, they’ve got to enjoy being frequently zapped by flares.” He smiled and shrugged. “Anyway, it was a good exercise for us astronomy graduate students. I think we’ll write a paper covering what I just summarized for you.”
We keep hearing about stars named “Gliese something.” So I checked Wikipedia. Here’s a summary:
The German astronomer Wilhelm Gliese (GLEE-zuh) began compiling a catalog of nearby stars in 1957. His first catalog listed almost 1000 stars within 83 light-years of the Sun.
Gliese published an extension to the second edition of the catalogue in 1979 in collaboration with Hartmut Jahreiss. Stars in this combined catalogue usually have the designation “GJ”, for example GJ 667, the Café’s “Super-Earth Health Food” star.
The catalog has since been augmented by other astronomers, and the celestial coordinates of the stars updated to reflect the Hipparcos astrometric measurements.
The current Gliese Catalog of Nearby Stars was published in 2010 and consists of 3,803 stars. Looks like we have plenty of neighbor stars.
While I was at it, I looked up HD too. The Henry Draper Catalogue of stars was published between 1918 and 1924, giving spectroscopic classifications for 225,300 stars. The catalog was constructed as part of a pioneering effort to classify stellar spectra. Henry Draper made the first photograph of a star's spectrum showing distinct spectral lines when he photographed Vega in 1872. The HD catalog numbers are commonly used today as a way of identifying stars. Extensions since 1924 have expanded the catalog to 359,083 stars.
One of the contributors to the HD catalog was the Harvard astronomer Annie Jump Cannon.
It was she, working with E. C. Pickering, who invented the lettered spectral types used today.
he original catalog used most of the alphabet. Cannon dropped all letters except O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, used \
in that order, as well as P for planetary nebulae and Q for some peculiar spectra.
She also used types such as B5A for stars halfway between types B and A,
F2G for stars one-fifth of the way from F to G, and so forth.
For example, our Sun has the spectral type G2V, which is interpreted as a "yellow" two tenths towards "orange" main-sequence star. The ‘V’ is a Roman numeral indicating normal, main-sequence luminosity class.
See Wikipedia page.
There was one other category of dwarf star that Felix and his group tried. This is the “brown dwarf,” the coldest spectral class of stars. These objects are not quite stars. Their mass isn’t sufficient for their gravitational compression to induce nuclear fusion in their core. They might do a very little nuclear fusion, some of the time, but most do no fusion at all. They generate all their heat from gravitation, from compression, and they radiate entirely in the infrared.
The brown dwarf they studied is called WISE 1541-2250 (discovered in 2011 by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer). They called it W15 for short. W15 is in the constellation Lyra, and not far in the sky from the bright star Vega.
W15 has a mass somewhere between 8 and 12 times Jupiter. It has a surface temperature about 350 K vs the Sun’s 5700 K. (Boiling water is 373 K) As stars go, W15 is a cold body. It’s not certain that a brown dwarf has a solid surface; it might be mushy, but maybe not. Perhaps with shoes on, you could walk around on the warm surface of W15, but it would be hard slogging, because, depending on the dwarf’s radius, you would weigh somewhere between 5 and 20 times as much as on Earth.
It’s faintly possible that the surface of a brown dwarf itself could have life, in warm oceans heated from below.
The distance of W15 is uncertain, anywhere from 9 to 40 light-years. If this star has any planets, they are very probably too cold to have evolved intelligent life, and I guess nothing has evolved on the star’s warm surface, not to the point where it constructed radio transmitters, anyway. There were no ET signals from the region of W15.
Felix’s group also processed a recently-discovered (2003) brown dwarf known as Teegarden's Star. This star is very dim, but quite close, 12 light-years distant in the constellation Aries. Like Barnard’s Star, Teegarden’s Star was found to have a very large proper motion. It was discovered in 2003 by re-examining asteroid tracking data that had been collected years earlier. The star is named after the discovery team leader, Bonnard Teegarden, a NASA astrophysicist. As with WISE, the SSE could get no ET signals from Teegarden’s Star.
Felix says that astronomers have long thought that there exist many undiscovered dwarf stars within 20 light years of Earth, as stellar population surveys show the count of known nearby dwarf stars to be lower than otherwise expected and these stars are dim and easily overlooked. Could be, but it doesn’t seem likely that these small dark stars are going to turn out to be home to any ETs.
The Klingons from G58 were definitely a joke. This was exposed when some Trekkies heard the gruff G58 voice and said it really was the Klingon language from the fictional civilization in Star Trek. Their language was deliberately designed by Marc Okrand to be "alien."
What happened was, unfortunately, that somebody managed to get around the anti-fraud protections. They took some real (recorded from a Star Trek episode) Klingon speech and merged it into the audio files produced by the SSE lab. Yow; these fraudsters put out so much effort just to fool people.
There were G58 signals at two frequencies. One was poor and broken up. So was the other, it turned out, but that was the one that got copied over with Klingon; that’s why the signal seemed too strong. The real G58 second frequency is noisy static; it might someday turn out to be voice, but it’s not likely to be speaking Klingon.
But what about the G58 music, the stuff that sounded like a Theremin? The SSE people say that part is real; they don’t think it was inserted by anyone. So what is it?
Well, it might not be an ET radio station. It could be something natural, like a heterodyne wail from something.
The SSE group has been doing a quick check of a few well-known, nearby bright stars for evidence of ET.
One night, on his way home, one of the researchers looked up at the night sky and saw the familiar man-shape of Orion the hunter. He knew that the bright stars in that constellation were very far away. Red Betelgeuse, at the upper left, had provided some interesting artificial ET Music for a while, but at 640 light-years it’s way too far away and nobody has found any packet messages or real ET music. The researcher’s eyes swept down off the body of the hunter and off to the left, into the constellation Canis Major, the hunter's big dog. And there was Sirius, blue-white, bright and only about 9 light-years distant. We ought to get something from Sirius, he thought.
Over the next month, he arranged for some radio telescope time, pointing at Sirius. Several frequencies were tried, statistically enhanced and run through versions of the same post-processing software that had found the packets from HD85, HD28 and brought in the various sources of voice and music.
They got a lot of signals, some from big Sirius A, some from the white dwarf companion Sirius B. There was nothing like telemetry packets or FM radio -- not even Sirius Morse Code. It was kind of a disappointment, because Sirius looms so large in Earth's mythology.
Alpha Centauri is also a bright star -- actually a binary system of two Sun-like stars, 4 light-years distant. It looks like there’s nobody there – not anyone who can build and run a radio transmitter anyway. And Felix’s group got nothing from Proxima Centauri.
After getting nothing from Sirius and Alpha Centauri, the SSE people thought they should try a few more of the conspicuous bright stars.
Canopus is a bright yellowish-white star in the southern hemisphere. It is big, 65 times the size of the Sun, and hot, with a 7350K surface temperature.
It is far south in the sky. It never rises in mid- or far-northern latitudes; in theory the northern limit of its visibility is latitude 37°18' north. This is almost exactly the latitude of Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, California. Astronomers on the mountain can see Canopus, because of the effects of elevation and atmospheric refraction, which add another degree to its apparent altitude.
Bright Canopus is often used as a reference star by spacecraft. It is a supergiant. For Canopus to appear the same size as our Sun, Earth would have to be moved from 1 AU out to 65 AU (about where Pluto is).
Canopus is a strong source of X-rays, which are probably produced by its corona, magnetically heated to around 15 million K.
So far, no planets have been detected orbiting Canopus. The X-rays would probably sterilize them anyway.
Canopus is pretty far away – more than 300 light-years. Not too surprisingly, the SSE did not detect any ET signals from it.
An attempt to get messages from ETs at Deneb was a non-starter.
Deneb is the brightest star in the northern constellation Cygnus the Swan. It’s a blue-white supergiant. It is among the most luminous stars known, with an estimated luminosity nearly 200,000 times that of our Sun.
Deneb's distance is rather uncertain, even with the results from Hipparcos. The best guess is at least 1,340 light-years and maybe much farther. This is too far even for the mighty SSE, so no further work was done on Deneb. It was probably too hot for life anyway.
Vega, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere constellation Lyra, appears to have a circumstellar disk of dust, probably the result of collisions between objects in Vega’s version of the solar system’s Kuiper belt. Vega is twice as massive as the Sun and is 25 light-years distant. Irregularities in Vega's disk suggest the presence of at least one planet, likely to be about the size of Jupiter.
Vega has an unusually low abundance of “metals,” the elements with a higher atomic number than that of helium. This doesn’t bode well for Earth-like planets. Vega also may vary slightly in magnitude in a periodic manner.
The SSE processed a large variety of signals from Vega, but so far, none of them appear to have intelligent content. If there’s an Earth-like planet there, it may be just in the first stages of formation from that debris disk.
The SSE group tried one more bright star. Fomalhaut is in the southern hemisphere, 25 light-years distant. It is visible in the Northern Hemisphere in autumn, very low on the southern horizon, in a region where there are few bright stars. Its mass is twice that of the Sun. Its radius is about 1.8 Sun and its surface temperature is only 875K.
Fomalhaut has a huge debris disk and a dust ring surrounding it, 25 AU wide, left over from its formation. It is a young star, only 100-300 million years old. Planet formation may be taking place right now. In fact, it’s possible for a big telescope to actually see what looks like a planet embedded in the debris disk. However, the planet might just be a particularly thick blob of dust — which could condense into a planet later on.
The SSE picked up a variety of miscellaneous signals from Fomalhaut. It’s not clear whether they come from the star, the debris disk or the possible planet. For now, Fomalhaut sends no music or voice.
While I was hanging out at the SETI Café recently, Felix came in, saw me there and immediately came over to my table. He asked me to finish eating my lunch and then come with him to the Campus.
“There’s something going on at the SSE lab that you ought to check out.” He was rather mysterious; he wouldn’t tell me any details at first.
As we walked along, after we had gotten away from the SETI Café, Felix confided, “I wanted to avoid attracting the attention of Starman or one of the other excitable people.
“The SSE lab has captured some pictures from HD85.”
Well, that sure got my attention. “Pictures of what?” I demanded.
“What’s happened is that the SSE lab found signal data on a new frequency coming from HD85. It appears to be a group of packets which form an array. They actually first encountered this array a week ago. Since then, they have spent a great deal of time analyzing what they had. Now they think they have determined that the array is 720 by 540 pixels. Interestingly, this is the same 4:3 aspect ratio as our analog traditional TV here on Earth. The SSE group has made some guesses about the format of the pixel elements and have produced a monochrome image. There’s probably color information there too, but they haven’t yet figured how it is encoded.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “That’s amazing. I take it that this array of packets couldn’t have come from our local digital TV. What about other image packet sources?”
Felix grimaced. “Well, there’s always the possibility that, once again, somebody salted our data, but these days the SSE lab has very stringent fraud protection procedures in place. They are quite sure the array really did come from HD85. Some of them think the packets are images being telemetered back from the same spacecraft that HD85 has been sending those other packets to, the ones with all the numbers."
We soon arrived at the building housing the SSE lab. When we entered the lab, we saw a small crowd gathered around the computer monitor at one of the analysis workstations.
“I think they are looking at the image now,” said Felix. We joined the group.
The image looked like a Cassini mission picture of one of the moons of Saturn. The limb of the moon, planet or whatever it was, made a large arc through the center of the image, separating pale gray moon from black space. The moon’s surface was covered with craters.
One of the group greeted us. “Hi Felix, you know Agnes and Paula from the planetary imaging group, don’t you? They say this picture definitely was not taken in our solar system. The image looks kind of like Mercury, our Moon or one of the smaller moons of the outer planets, but it isn’t any of them. Right, Paula?”
The young woman addressed as Paula nodded agreement. She smiled brightly and said, “I bet this image shows up on HD85 TV, back at their home planet. It looks like the HD85 Voyager Mission has scored a big success. That must be one of their outer planets, or a moon of something out there.”
Felix turned to one of the SSE staff and said, “Nathan, you know she might be right. I wish we could tune in to the leakage from HD85 broadcast TV.” Nathan shrugged and replied, “Right, sure, well, we’ll keep trying.”
“Is this the only image?” Felix asked Nathan.
“No, we pulled together a few more. Want to see them?” Felix nodded. Nathan went to the computer and started working. A new image appeared. It looked like the same moon, this time filling the frame.
“Here’s another. See what you make of this.” The new image was mostly black, but there were numerous bright specks in it. Nathan turned to a co-worker and asked “Ezra, have you finished the pattern matching?”
“Yeah,” was the reply. “I’ve been waiting to tell you. Maybe this picture should be on OUR evening news.” Ezra gave a broad grin.
“What do you mean?” asked Nathan. He turned to the gathered crowd. “Oh, folks, this is a picture of a star field probably taken from the HD85 spacecraft. Ezra here has been working on matching the star pattern to see where it is pointing. What are we looking at?”
Ezra used the pen he had in his hand to point to one of the stars in the image. “I think that’s our Sun.”
This startled everyone. After the hubbub died down, we got a detailed explanation. Ezra had produced simulated star fields – the universe as seen from HD85, looking out in various directions. He used these fields to match with the HD85 star field image. He got a match for looking from HD85 in the direction of Earth, and was able to identify our Sun as a small stellar point in the HD85 image.
Somehow, we had managed to intercept the transmission of images, either from the HD85 spacecraft, or from a transmission of the image via satellite at the HD85 planet.
This was awesome. It was the first picture of our Sun against the star background as seen from 35 light-years distant.
The point Paula was making was that the ETs would very likely feature this image and the ones of the outer planet/moon, on their own HD85 broadcast TV. Knowing this, the SSE team might be able to look for the same image pattern and identify a leakage signal, which might tell us how to decode HD85 local TV.
Felix got the SSE lab to send a copy of the image with our Sun and another image with the crater-strewn moon to the SETI Café website. He also got printed hard-copies.
We carried the printouts back to the SETI Café and added them to the wall collection. Felix spent the next couple hours explaining the pictures, again and again, to a string of arriving Café customers.
None of the ET message conferences have had much to say about MV – the mysterious Music From the Void. We get new compositions every so often. No radio station lays claim to producing this music. None of the local musicians seem to recognize the composer. There’s a disquieting possibility that it is somehow coming in from very, very far away.
I, Starman and several others have tried to get visions from the latest MV music. My latest vision is what I think is a look at the Epsilon Eridani system from space. It strongly resembles the pictures on the Web, so I don’t think the music is conveying any specific data to me – just prodding my memories and emotions.
At the SETI Café, last Friday, a small informal conference was held to deal with MV. The meeting wasn’t called by anyone. The participants just all happened to be there.
Expertise was contributed, in roughly descending order of competence, by Dr. Winston, Felix, Cosmo, Abner, Starman and me.
Since Abner and Cosmo had never designated an “inspired by” dish for MV, each of us ordered whatever was our favorite. I stuck with my Epsilonian salad; Dr. Winston chose Tau Tofu. After preparing everyone’s order, Abner mixed himself some Jupiter Red Spot Yogurt and sat down with us. It was 6:45 p.m., near closing time.
Dr. Winston summarized the issue before us.
“The easiest thing to do is just write off MV as music from Earth.
“Someone salted the data? Well, we’ve seen it happen, haven’t we?. But, we now think we have good data security at the radio telescope and the SSE lab, so it’s unlikely the MV is being deliberately inserted into the recorded signal. By the way, it is just the one frequency which is being modulated with MV, and the signal is coming from a very definite place in the sky, in Ursa Major. There’s no varying Doppler, either than what comes from Earth’s motions. MV seems to be standing still out there, which really bothers me as an astronomer – everything is in orbit about something!
“And of course there’s that pesky smudge of a galaxy, which makes it look like MV was transmitted over 8 million years ago.
“All these indications could be mistaken, due to some physics effect we still haven’t realized we must take account of.
“And while the music is pleasing to an Earthling’s ear, the musical notes and other conventions in MV are not quite the same as those used by today’s composers of orchestral music. But they’re close.”
Starman spoke up: “Doesn’t all that tell us that MV is definitely extraterrestrial? Remember, it doesn’t have to be transmitted from a planet. We could have picked up the signal of an ET who doesn’t live on a planet.”
“Or the signal is very far removed from us, in space and time.” This was Cosmo, breaking in. “Maybe MV is leaking through from elsewhere (or elsewhen), using something like a cosmic wormhole. It could even be coming from a parallel universe.”
“That makes good sense to me,” said Abner. “This music is so beautiful, it could have been played by spirits out in space, not living beings at all.”
I had to comment on that. “I remember remarks by the historian who spoke at the end of one of the conferences. She said we shouldn’t assume that we and ET have a shared technology kit. We might be hearing from an ET who is very much different from us, who has evolved very different solutions to engineering problems. Abner might be right that the source is something like spirits, something immaterial like the wailing of a cosmic wind.”
Dr. Winston tried to pull us back toward known physics. “Keep Occam’s Razor in mind. We shouldn’t bring in too many fantastic ideas. This reminds me of the debate over Dark Matter. We know it’s there; we can see its effects. It needs to be explained. Physicists have suggested unknown particles and unknown large-scale aspects of gravitation. Maybe Dark Matter is just heaps of Higgs Bosons. Leakage from a parallel universe is possible, but that sure drags in a huge bunch of assumptions.”
Felix had been uncharacteristically silent during this discussion. He could see that Cosmo and Abner wanted to close the Café, so he made what turned out to be a good summary remark.
“We may just have to leave MV a mystery. People used to do that for the origin of rainfall, eclipses and earthquakes. Today, as clever technologists who believe in science, we don’t feel comfortable attributing stuff we can’t understand to the mysterious actions of the gods and the spirits, so what’s left?”
“Yeah,” said Starman with a dreamy smile. “maybe it’s Angels.”
So are there any real ETs out there?
Well, there must be. Some intelligent beings are sending that stuff; it can’t all be cosmic burps, star quakes, leaks from Earth or counterfeit data inserted by practical jokesters.
Now that we have the SSE, we have discovered that getting signals from ET is the easy part. Understanding what ET says is the hard part.
We think we have discovered a least two ET civilizations doing space research. We have had the luck to eavesdrop on their deep space telemetry. We have successfully tapped into one of their returned image results. The HD85 ETs are at least as intelligent and technically able as we are. But we still can’t carry on a conversation with them.
Some ETs compose and play music. Some of it is really great stuff. Music may turn out to be some kind of common object.
Several people have now pointed out that an ET population on a planet might very well consist of many different racial varieties, and speak as many different languages as we do. It could be that part of our problem with understanding “ET voice” is that we may be hearing more than one ET language from a given voice source.
So far, there has been nothing like television identified in any ET source. The SSE group has been unable to capture a leakage signal. Maybe, for some reason, no ET has developed television – or as one cynic said, they all gave it up as a bad idea. It could also be that they all found some much better way to pass around images. Starman speculates that they all evolved telepathy.
We have now received, from several sources, something very similar to our broadcast FM radio, from Epsilon Eridani and 61 Cygni.
We know that some ETs talk. They at least have a voice box and some perhaps other noise-making appendages. However they do it, they produce noises which sound like some kind of language. But so far, since we still don’t share a collection of common objects, we have not been able to understand any ET language, except possibly in a very general way. The zombies in the SETI Café claim to get vague impressions from some of it, but that seems dubious.
The Music from the Void still comes in occasionally. There’s been plenty of speculation about its origin, but nobody really knows what’s going on with that. People are getting MV visions, with no ill effects, now that everyone is more used to the phenomenon. Some religious people are enjoying a foretaste of heavenly bliss, even me, to some extent.
We’re not sure if we’ve ever heard an ET singing.
Some of the ET source stars are close enough that it is conceivable that someday, either we or they may find a way to bridge the vast gulf of distance between us so that we can have a real-time dialog. We might even find a way to exchange visits – by taking in ETs as parallel personalities? Maybe the zombie thing actually works.
It remains possible that MV will someday be de-mystified and demonstrated to be Earth-origin. One charming suggestion has been that one of the recently-allowed low-power neighborhood FM transmitters, used by a local music group for practice, is close enough to the radio telescope to be picked up via some connection that nobody had thought was possible. If that’s the case, I’d sure like to get in touch with that music group; they have a great composer.
For now, it looks like we have slim prospects of two-way communication with any ET. The distances are too great. The languages, and probably cultures, are too different. But we can still listen.
There is the distinct possibility that we humans, the inhabitants of a small rocky, wet planet are a very rare form of life in the cosmos. We may in fact be unique. Most of the ETs may be so different from us that we would be repelled or disgusted if we saw them – or clearly picked up one of their TV programs. Some ETs do seem to be as technically capable as we are, if not more so.
The most numerous intelligent life forms in the universe may be the Jovian Whales, giant gas bag beings who live in the atmosphere of planets like Jupiter, feeding on a kind of krill based on methane and ammonia. But they are too different from us for any communication to take place.
We have detected ET signals from as far out as 138 light-years (HD28). If MV is as distant as it seems, we might be bringing in signals from even farther out (and longer ago).
Will the SSE work at all on a signal from a neighboring galaxy, such as the Large Magellanic Cloud (160,000 light-years) or the Andromeda Galaxy (2.6 million light-years)? The Andromeda galaxy has maybe twice as many stars as our Milky Way. But it’s likely that any ET signal will be hopelessly scrambled by all the noise from that huge concentration of stars, over that vast distance. I think the effort to contact Andromeda would be as futile as the attempt to send a message to M13, the great globular star cluster in Hercules – which is actually a component of our Milky Way galaxy.
Among all those stars out there, many billions of them, it now looks like there must be a huge number with planets, and some of those planets must be the home of ETs , many spewing radio signals, maybe even some flashing lasers.
The signals, voice, music and data, transmitted by our ET neighbors tell us that we humans are not the only intelligent beings in the universe, but we have also found out that our neighbors are very different from us, and not easy to communicate with. Right now, it looks unlikely that we can do much more than just listen.
So far, there has not been any great transfer of wisdom from ancient ETs to us. There has been no religious revelation. Paul the Berkeley preacher lost interest in the ET “sermons,” but he is enthralled by the visions of Heaven provoked by MV.
Maybe we’ll have better communication closer to home. If we can’t talk to Jupiter and Saturn, maybe we can contact marine beings in the ice-covered oceans of Europa or Enceladus. We might even meet microbes on Mars – or find fossils of life from the watery Martian past.
Of course we could try harder to learn from the local beings we know, the dolphins and whales in Earth’s oceans. We could even learn to better understand the other varieties of humans, and stop fighting with them.
some books which helped in the writing of
“Tales from the SETI Café”
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